[Hpn] Homeless stake claim to riverbank

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Thu, 21 Jun 2001 16:08:06 -0700


Homeless stake claim to riverbank

Published Thursday, June 21, 2001,
in the San Jose Mercury News

Mercury News 

Those who live here call it ``Camp Paradise,'' a respite from the evils of
Santa Cruz street life.

But the city of Santa Cruz has told residents of the serene but illegal
campground along an oak-shaded bank of the San Lorenzo River that they must
pack up by July 1 or face eviction and possible arrest. The riverbank is no
place for homeless people because they're damaging the fragile habitat, city
officials say.

The campground's 30 or so tent dwellers, though, say they aren't budging,
setting up the city's biggest showdown over the simmering homeless issue
since the city council created outside sleeping areas 13 months ago and then
backed down.

Last year, Camp Paradise was known as Heroin Alley. But in January, a band
of homeless people began cleaning up the used syringes, McDonald's wrappers
and other trash and began creating what they see as a model for the rest of
Santa Cruz's homeless by declaring it a drug- and alcohol-free zone.

The campground's residents are now growing a dozen crops, including sweet
yellow corn, hot peppers and radishes. Close to the three-tiered garden is a
hammock out of the pages of Sunset magazine that swings gently in the
breeze, guarded by two lion sculptures that residents pulled out of the

They've built a bridge over a ravine, a goldfish pond and installed
tree-branch fences to keep people from crushing plants. They've even set up
a bike-repair shop that earns money for the camp and allows residents to
give away bicycles to other homeless.

The drug dealers have either moved upstream or to the other side of the
river, Paradise residents say. They say the place is safe enough for four
children, who range in age from 2 to 9, to call home.

``If these people were the Boy Scouts, the city would be giving them a
medal,'' said Orthodox Rabbi Chayim Levin, 47, a Santa Cruz homeless
advocate. ``This place has been exorcised.''

City and police officials say they admire the residents' work but must
enforce a municipal ordinance that bans camping or sleeping outside from 11
p.m. to 8:30 a.m.

``We're not unsympathetic to their situation,'' said Deputy Police Chief
Jeff Locke. ``But we're not a social service organization. The laws apply
equally to everyone, whether they're messy or clean.''

Official's visit

Vice Mayor Christopher Krohn agrees, saying the city should instead
intensify its efforts at creating a homeless shelter for families -- an
effort that received a crushing blow in November when city voters rejected a
measure to raise the hotel and motel tax to build such a shelter.

``I can't go along with folks camping along the river,'' said Krohn, who
visited the encampment this week with his infant daughter, Isabel. ``The
folks I encountered are keeping the place relatively clean, but it still
remains to be seen how they get rid of human waste.''

Denny's -- and the Chevron and Beacon stations down the street -- replied
Larry Templeton, 41, founder of Camp Paradise.

But city officials fear that even tidy people will leave a mess. As Locke
put it: ``I suspect they're not always going at Denny's.''

If they give in, city leaders predict, they'll see a replay of their last
public display of compassion for the homeless.

In a 4-3 vote in May 2000, the council created two ``safe-sleeping zones''
in industrial areas. Homeless activists declared it a historic victory.

But the victory was short-lived. Before its final adoption, the plan fell
victim to an avalanche of e-mails, faxes and phone calls from businesses and
people who live near the zones. They complained that the area had become a
``homeless magnet,'' drawing in people from King City to Kalamazoo.

``It's a good experiment during the honeymoon,'' City Councilman Scott
Kennedy said of Camp Paradise. But Kennedy said he's seen other good
intentions go awry.

He recalled one attempt in the early '90s to create a sanctioned campground
on Coral Street near Harvey West Park. When it rained, the place became a
muddy mess inhabited by hundreds of people, Kennedy said.

But Templeton, a former cocaine and methamphetamine addict who says he's
been clean for more than two years, believes Paradise will only get better.

Cleaning up the river, he says, has helped him clean up his life.

Templeton knows his river. He's been living on its banks since 1984, when he
arrived in Santa Cruz as a young man from Iowa.

``We're working with picks and shovels rather than syringes and pipes,''
Templeton said as he dug a hole for a cardboard sign posting the rules of
Camp Paradise.

If anyone is caught with alcohol or drugs, the posted rules say, they will
be asked to leave. And several residents have been evicted without incident,
Templeton said.

Several other rules

The other rules of Paradise: Respect each other, help with the chores and
don't fight.

An increasing number of homeless see Templeton as a kind of messiah.

``The people look to Larry as a leader and father figure,'' said Brazlo
Zoltan, 51, who's lived at the camp for several weeks.

Zoltan, who arrived in Santa Cruz in March from San Francisco, said that
until recently he made good money helping to set up dot-com trade shows in
Silicon Valley.

``But dot-com dot-gone,'' said Zoltan. ``I'm flat broke.''

Now hoping to land a job in retail for $7 or $8 an hour, Zoltan found
Paradise when he ran into Templeton at a soup kitchen. He said he's grateful
for a safe place to stay after having his tent stolen by junkies.

``Many of the people living in homeless shelters are people who have given
up on life,'' he said. ``These are people who are trying to create a new

Despite warnings from police, Templeton is proceeding with plans for an
``open house'' -- a potluck barbecue with music -- from noon to 5 p.m.

``We want the people of Santa Cruz to see for themselves what we've
accomplished,'' he said. ``They'll come down here and think it's gorgeous. I
guarantee it.''


Contact Ken McLaughlin at kmclaughlin@sjmercury.com or (831) 423-3115.

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