If you have went into Santa Cruz via River Street and highway 9, if you visit Costco in Santa Cruz and come back on your way home from buying 5 years worth of Q-Tips, if you have went to the Gateway Plaza shopping center to shop at Petsmart, World Market or Ross Dress for Less, chances are that you have seen the numerous tents behind Ross. According to a story with the Santa Cruz Sentinel there are more than 70 tents and somewhere around 100 people living in that encampment. I was there recently and that sounds about right. More on that later…
It’s hard to miss. And ask different people about the encampment and you tend to have the following four responses; What is it? Why is it there? How can we help them? And, why should we help them?
WHO’S PROBLEM IS IT?
For the past couple of years I have brought up the topic of homelessness numerous times on the My Scotts Valley Facebook page and it has been received with passion on the far right or passion on the far left, very few times is it in the middle.
So why talk about it? Because it is a real problem right here, right now. It is not a problem exclusive to Santa Cruz county or the city itself, it is a worldwide problem that belongs to all of us.
I personally have had very close members of my family affected by homelessness. It has been a very trying situation for our family for many years. And with many homeless individuals, many are homeless due to mental illness and/or drug addiction.
HOW THEY GOT THERE
But not all homeless individuals are in the state that they are because of mental illness or drug addiction, many are homeless due to any number of life situations. Many in our community are living paycheck to paycheck on the verge of being homeless and with a job layoff or loss of a job, there they are.
I have many wonderful people and friends around me that are caring and we often talk about the homeless situation, why we have it and what could be done to solve it. One friend, Kelly, shared her story of how she has gotten involved in homeless projects through the years and she shared a story about how she would volunteer in different projects and shelters. On one particular project there was a gentleman who was homeless but always seems so well put together, properly dressed, and just someone that “did not fit the mold” of what a homeless person would look like. Not to stereotype at all, it was just a comment that was made at the shelter by others.
So the gentleman was finally approached and asked to share his story as to why he was homeless. He went on to share that he was married with children and had a fine career. His wife and kids were in a tragic car accident and he lost his entire family. He could not function, could not be who he once was and lost his job, his savings, everything over a short time and he became homeless over the situation. She went on to share how this person over time began to get his life back together and has gotten back on his feet. But that one tragic situation put his life in a tailspin that took years to recover from. Many would never make it out after a tragic situation like that.
Of course, that is the extreme, but the fact is not all who are homeless do it by choice or are there due to bad choices in life.
On a recent trip to a homeless shelter at the Veterans of Foreign Affairs on 7th Avenue in Santa Cruz to do a mobile laundry service as a volunteer with Scotts Valley resident Ron Powers who operates “Loads of Love”, we met a gentleman who was here from Louisiana. We got to talking to him and asked him what brought him to Santa Cruz and to his situation as he has that southern draw that is not picked up in Santa Cruz or anywhere in California. The witty and charming man shared with us his background of working on movie sets. In fact, he has worked on at least a couple of popular movie sets and had a career in the movie business. But when he came to Santa Cruz after a failed relationship he came for a job opportunity that ended up not working out and when he ran out of money, he had no way of making it back home to Louisiana. That night he had asked if anyone could help him with a ticket to go back home and I will be paying him a visit again soon and if serious about his desire to go back home, I will report back and figure out a way for the community to rally and raise funds to send him back home where he belongs and wants to be which would also be close to his son whom he spoke of.
Many who see the homeless issue will remark, “If I can make a great living and home for my family, they should do the same.”
But it is not that easy. Not everyone is built the same and has the same mindset and drive. That’s why many times you will have a family with five children and one or two of them have a hard time making a living, the other two are doing fine and one is successful. Everyone is different, everyone has or lacks certain skills even if coming from the same womb. To say that everyone should be able to do what the majority of “successful” people are doing is ignorant. It’s just not humanely possible.
That is the reason why the homeless shelter that I attended mid-week has the majority of their “residents” sleeping in a warm facility with benches to relax, enjoy conversation with each other, and even a television in the middle where people can either watch as they go to sleep or just make the choice to coverup and go to sleep. It’s not the Ritz Carlton by any means, but it is a far cry from the homeless encampment that I visited behind Ross off of River and highway 9. There were certain rules and guidelines to be able to stay at that first shelter and not everyone has or had the capacity and ability to follow those rules so that they can reserve their spot as the space is limited.
THE GATEWAY PLAZA HOMELESS ENCAMPMENT
A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by an individual that requests anonymity who was asking if I could help out in any way to get the word out and get assistance for these people. She went on to share a story of numerous people there who wanted help but did not have the means to find it with at least one young woman wanting to be checked in to a rehab center but that they were not available during the weekend.
The conversation was an emotional one for her and for myself as I mentioned earlier, homelessness has already hit close to home for my family, and so did mental health issues as my father also suffered from mental illness before he passed.
So we set a date and time to meet and discuss her work that she had been doing and the path that she had paved to establish a level of trust from the people in that encampment. She had been tirelessly working with the people there to see how she could help, what she could do to make a difference. Her efforts were quite impressive, using much of her own finances to help and the efforts continue constantly even today.
“I basically have been thinking of different ways to help those in need from taking Red Cross in the past, to looking into going overseas to help in the poorer countries, but never really stopped to think that I need not go anywhere but look in my own backyard,” she said.
After our initial discussion, a lot of ideas were shared and I listened as she shared how had been setting a level of trust with those living in the encampment. One of the initial ideas included the possibility of getting a mobile laundry service to the encampment. That idea was put on hold after speaking with the Santa Cruz Police Department which stated that there could be a problem bringing the mobile laundry to the encampment as the property owners could in fact order the van off the property and could even have the van being towed from the property.
The mobile laundry made possible by Ron Powers could still be a possibility provided that an acceptable location be established and there is also the possibility to have a mobile shower facility somewhere near the encampment every once in a while. Details would still have to be discussed, but it is also a real possibility as I had discussions with Natia Ambrosi of Twin Lakes Church who is involved with the mobile shower facilities. More on this to follow in the future.“
So after following her lead, we agreed that an effort should be made to reach out to the My Scotts Valley community which reaches much of Santa Cruz County and San Lorenzo Valley in addition to Scotts Valley for goods and supplies. The incredible amount of participation and support by the community was overwhelming and it came to a point where I could not even walk in my office as there were donations coming out of everywhere. Huge kudos to everyone who participated and donated.
THE MISSION & EXPERIENCE
A date was set for Friday, December 21st and I along with a friend and co-worker Ian Perez headed out with 2 truck loads of supplies from gloves, to socks, underwear, jackets, sanitary products, food and other items to the encampment. At first we were met with a little reservation from the residents there. After speaking with the Santa Cruz Police officers that were there about what we wanted to do we were given the ok and after opening discussions with residents that explained that we were only there to pass out the needed items, a trust was established. In fact, I purposely did not take any pictures inside the encampment to show respect for the people there.
When we visited the encampment I had my reservations. I did. And after lots of advice I thought that it would be wise and responsible to make sure that there was at least a sign of police presence and the Santa Cruz Police Department was so instrumental in providing a safe atmosphere. I must admit, I did not know what to expect and it was far from what I had been told to expect.
The facilities are in a very dire situation. The foundations of their homes are wooden pellets just high enough to keep some of the water from rains out and them from sleeping on top of the mud as we are into the winter season and the only flooring is cold dirt and mud. Tarps are roofs on top of tarps and tents, and thoughts of staying warm are at the mercy of finding a blanket and extra layer of clothing, and the weather conditions.
The location setting for the most part is mud when it rains and hard dirt surrounded by the shopping center and highway 9. There are four or five porta-potties with a hand sanitizing station and not much of anything else.
The individuals that I met and conversed with were all cordial, respectful and appreciative of the efforts being made. One resident actually had his birthday on the Friday that I was there. Once he told me that, a few of us were wishing him a happy birthday and a couple of police officers present were also chiming in.
On that note, it was refreshing to see SCPD being so cordial and friendly with residents to the point of fun jabbing and kidding around. I mean that in the most positive way and it is appreciated. It is very easy for many to judge and have a preconceived notion or opinion, its great to see the officers show heart and understanding and treatment of respect for a situation that is sometimes hard to imagine or understand.
Indeed, the conditions are difficult to understand and see. To see people without basic necessities such as hot water, warm food and shelter is difficult.
Many who were there wanted out, one way or another, as you may expect. Many tell stories of their hardship, years of abuse that put them on the streets, and with no other means to stay alive then to turn to crime to survive.
Many are in need of immediate mental health or drug addiction assistance. A daily walk-through by mental health and drug addiction counselors in camps like this would go a long way towards getting some people who not only need it but want it the help that they need. These people need to be reached, they are not walking into counseling offices and locations.
WE HAVE TO ALL GET INVOLVED
This is an issue and problem that does not belong to any one individual, group, or organization, it is an issue that belongs to all of us and it is incumbent upon us all to find solutions to the homeless problem. I have to scratch my head in confusion how we cannot find facilities and bedding for 2,250 homeless individuals in Santa Cruz county. It can be done, and it can be done in an area where everyone could give a little. It does not need to be right in the middle of a residential community where you will no doubt face opposition from the area residents. But a common ground needs to be found.
Give people the opportunity that they need by providing a place to stay, a way to work and a way to be a productive member of society that many indeed want to become. There is almost no way that a homeless individual who has not showered or bathed in weeks can walk in a business and ask for a job. The reality is that it will result in them being kicked out of the establishment. It is simply almost impossible to expect someone in a homeless encampment to find a productive job and what eventually happens is a life spiraling in the wrong direction where people are given no chance to come out of the hole that they are in.
In fact, many homeless that have addiction issues are due to the fact that they are homeless and use drugs or alcohol to get away from the pressures and sadness of being homeless and it is a never ending cycle where being around drugs and alcohol continues to contribute to the problem and increase the likelihood that those that do not have addiction issues will at some point. And after a certain amount of drug use, many develop mental health issues as the result of the drug use.
That is the reality of the situation. And if 20-30% of homeless do not have addiction and mental health issues, those need to be saved immediately and given a chance before they fall into addiction problems.
Santa Cruz county is big enough to find housing solutions for 2,300 to 2,500 people that are in need of housing (approximately 80% have no shelter) to keep them off the streets, it is a matter of coming together and working together in a collaborative effort by all.
In regards to mental health and drug addiction, as previously stated, get counselors out in the streets and in the encampments daily and start identifying who needs help right now, and work towards getting them help. There are counselors in some homeless shelters, but I believe that counselors need to be roaming and mobile to reach the people that need the most help. There is not one life that is not worth the effort. A percentage will need immediate rehabilitation and it is important to recognize the urgency of the matter by providing the assistance that is needed.
Much needed money is coming to Santa Cruz County in the millions of dollars for 2019 to help with the homeless crisis. It is important to use it wisely and with a common goal of creating solutions to house the homeless. Yes, it can be done.
If you were to ask the homeless how they got here, you will find that many have come from out of the area. Some as close as San Francisco and others have come from other parts of the country and the world. An effort should be made to reunite these individuals with their families or in the very least put them in touch with their family as many families have not heard from them in months or even years. Ask a parent if they would catch a plane to save their child and most parents would be on the first flight.
I believe that many of our homeless population want to be reunited with their families. Some have told me so. They do not want to be in the place that they are in and nobody cares more than a parent or family member. A major effort should be made to reunite them with each other.
SO WHAT IS THE ANSWER?
I am no expert in homelessness, not even close. I am a local concerned with the issue like most people are. I both don’t like seeing the homeless encampments, and don’t like knowing that there are homeless people.
I do not know that there is one answer, or even a couple. Each situation is different and each individual has different needs. But one thing we all have in common is the need for compassion and the realization that this is our problem. It is. And the moment that we all take responsibility for it is the day that we move closer to solutions.