[Hpn] Santa Cruz to break camp

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Mon, 18 Jun 2001 14:55:32 -0700

Santa Cruz to break camp
Community of tents pitched by the homeless gets the boot
Maria Alicia Gaura, Chronicle Staff Writer

Saturday, June 16, 2001
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle


Santa Cruz -- With its goldfish pond, tree-branch fences and river-rock
cooking pit, Camp Paradise looks like an elaborate fantasy fort built by

During the past six months, campers here have transformed a garbage-strewn
hideaway into a leafy homestead complete with gardens, kitchen, picnic table
and running water (filched from an adjoining cemetery).

Camp leader Larry Templeton operates a bicycle repair shop beneath a large
blue tarp, which also protects the camp's pride and joy -- a brand-new
gasoline generator.

"We all pitched in to buy this thing, $452 at Costco," Templeton said,
giving the machine a fond pat. "Gives us some light at night. Now we're
dreaming of maybe getting a little fridge to bring down here, too."

But dreams of improving Camp Paradise, or even of staying here much longer,
will probably evaporate soon. Although lovely, this tent community is
illegally located on city land. Clustered on the sandy banks of the San
Lorenzo River, it sits within the river's floodplain and has no sanitary

Santa Cruz Mayor Tim Fitzmaurice paid a friendly visit recently, but the
residents of Camp Paradise have been told to leave. On July 1, city crews
are scheduled to come in and erase all trace of the encampment. Nonetheless,
the 20 or so campers -- a motley affiliation of drifters, recovering
addicts, penniless teenagers and a displaced family -- are determined to

In most California cities, Camp Paradise would have been leveled without the
courtesy of a four-week notice or a visit from the mayor. But in Santa Cruz
-- where, despite a series of disastrous attempts to legalize camping for
the homeless, sympathy for the disadvantaged remains strong -- the campers'
plight is causing a political stir.

"Santa Cruz has many people who are very sympathetic to the homeless, to
people in need," said Deputy Chief of Police Jeff Locke. "City officials are
wrestling with this dilemma, and law enforcement is wrestling with it, too.
It tears you apart sometimes (to enforce laws against illegal camping), but
what else can you do? If you don't have controls, you end up with chaos."

Toni Kelly, seven months pregnant, lives at the camp with her husband and
3-year-old son. Squirrel, who has HIV, moved in two months ago. Sunshine,
18, suffers from bipolar disorder. Rebel, a former heroin addict, recently
graduated from a local drug-treatment program. Templeton came here in
January after his release from jail.

Just last week, residents and a group of supporters made their case directly
to the Santa Cruz City Council, asking officials to let them stay.

"If they want Dumpsters or Porta-Johns, we can pay for that," Templeton
said. 'We're not asking for any money; we're willing to keep the drug
dealers out and make it safe. All we want is a chance to prove ourselves."

Critics worry that city officials are giving the campers false hope and may
be setting themselves up for an unpleasant confrontation come July 1.

"It's not in the interest of either society or these folks to live in those
conditions," said former Mayor Mike Rotkin, a university professor with
nearly 20 years of past experience on the City Council. "They've given so
much time for these people to move out that other people will be encouraged
to join them, building up the potential for an apocalyptic little scene."

Rotkin acknowledged that the city's wavering policy is motivated by good
intentions. But schemes that attract homeless people from other regions only
serve to erode support for traditional homeless shelters, food and
assistance programs, he said.

A growing number of residents also worry about damage to the environment
from unregulated camping. Santa Cruz has worked for decades to purchase
hundreds of acres of greenbelt lands encircling its border -- but average
residents rarely venture into these areas alone anymore, because of the
burgeoning numbers of illegal campers.

City Councilman Mark Primack said he was very moved by the testimony of the
Camp Paradise residents but has no idea what the city should do next.

"I'm not sure what can be done about it," Primack said. "That river area has
historically been a hobo camp for Santa Cruz, but in the past, these issues
were quiet issues. We don't have the option of just looking the other way
anymore, which is how communities have traditionally dealt with that sort of

Despite a wealth of harsh experience, a raft of Santa Cruz politicians seem
perennially optimistic that a local solution for the homeless problem can be

Last summer, the Santa Cruz City Council considered a plan to allow people
to sleep in their cars or on the sidewalks in two light-industrial areas.
But before the idea ever got out of the planning stage, those areas were
overrun by travelers from as far afield as Oregon, Virginia and Connecticut.
The project was hastily abandoned.

Several years earlier, the council let homeless campers take over an open
field located behind the city's official shelter. Although the project got
under way with high hopes and self-government, the campground experiment
soon deteriorated because of drug use, lack of sanitation and a deluge of
new arrivals. One man died of an overdose, rapes were reported and the
campground was flooded by a sewage spill. The site was abruptly cleared, and
the program ended. 

A plan to rent campsites for the homeless at state parks in the Santa Cruz
area was plagued by problems with drugs, dogs, crowding and conflicts with
recreational campers. This year, the state park system limited campers to no
more than a combined 30 days of camping per year in area parks.

At the same time, opponents of the city's camping ban have been making life
miserable for elected officials, dogging every meeting, going on hunger
strikes, camping out in city offices and attempting to grab the limelight at
various city events.

Mayor Fitzmaurice, one of the architects of last year's car-camping program,
did not return a call from The Chronicle. But he has stated publicly about
Camp Paradise that "what we are trying to do is make it possible for people
to live happily even in that circumstance."

Ken Cole, director of the Santa Cruz Homeless Community Resource Center,
called the debate over Camp Paradise "a mess."

"The politicians don't want to make anybody unhappy, but it would be more
honest to say that this camp is coming down and let people move on without
this false sense of hope," Cole said. "I have great empathy for the homeless
people stuck in the middle here. They're asked to become invisible, but
everybody has garbage, sewage and basic needs."

E-mail Maria Alicia Gaura at mgaura@sfchronicle.com.

©2001 San Francisco Chronicle   Page A - 11

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