Federal judge temporarily stops Camp Ross closure

A man heads into Camp Ross, a homeless camp on Highway 1 at River Street in Santa Cruz, on Tuesday morning. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian

City must wait until Friday’s court hearing to act

SANTA CRUZ — A day after an emergency ruling from a Santa Cruz County Superior Court judge authorized the closure of Camp Ross, a large homeless camp at the corner of Highway 1 at River Street in Santa Cruz, a Federal Court judge ordered city officials to cease the mass eviction of the nearly 200 people.

Judge Paul Burdick declared the camp a public nuisance on Monday, clearing the way for officials to close the site, and force campers to voluntarily relocate to an alternative site at the benchlands of San Lorenzo Park — close to downtown Santa Cruz — by 4 p.m. on Wednesday. But Judge Edward Davila, of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, granted homeless rights activists a temporary restraining order and a hearing in San Jose on Friday.

The order came down as City Council members were debating the permanent closure of the camp at Tuesday’s meeting.

Numerous speakers took turns at the podium in the public address portion of the meeting to voice thoughts about the camp.

“We were there predating this homeless camp with plans,” said Brent Adams. “The city has allowed this to become a festering drug, money heap. They are always playing lowest common denominator.”

One woman, who said her name was Satya, took the time to honor the members of Camp Ross.

“I agree that it is not an ideal situation,” Satya said. “I like what I see — what other cities are doing. I know it’s hard to get into housing. I would encourage the city work with them. They need our help and they need us to set up some sort of temporary housing. Please help them.”

On Wednesday morning a man who said his name was Gary settled into a brand new tent on a wood platform in the temporary homeless campsite in the benchlands at San Lorenzo Park.

“I like what I see,” Gary, on his 62 birthday, said. “They provided me with a tent, a sleeping bag and an air mattress. This should be comfortable.”

Gary said he was born in Orange County and had worked for years as a welder.

“I worked in most of the United States as a professional welder and made good money,” he said. “I’ve been homeless now for the past 27 years. I never stayed at Camp Ross; there were too many things wrong with that place.”

Mickie Weeks packed up her belongings and walked away from Camp Ross along with her dog, Marly, Tuesday morning.

“I wouldn’t be up here on the levee tomorrow (Wednesday) because of all the rats,” she said. “I’m not really sure about the new location; there are so many rules. I came down here from Oregon and I’ve been homeless for about a year. I worked my whole adult life and graduated from college and here I am.”

Weeks, 29, said she had worked in food service. She said Camp Ross was getting to be “too much.”

The proposed alternative site had been approved and was under construction on Tuesday morning. City officials said the grassy field that flanks the San Lorenzo River offered a far greater sanitary setting than Camp Ross. 

Officials have been concerned of a fire hazard at Camp Ross, on top of reports of four deaths there recently, and drug use.

“I think they should close it,” said a woman named Michelle, who said she has been homeless for about three years. “They should close it because of all the disease there — it’s really bad. I was one of the first people to move into Camp Ross. I now stay under the Water Street Bridge. It’s hard and a tough way to live.”

Michelle, who was standing near Camp Ross sorting through several bags of aluminum cans she planned to cash in at a recycling center, said she was from Pennsylvania and had worked for years as a waitress and made between $20 and $25 an hour for a family-owned restaurant. She became homeless in Santa Cruz.

“In June they’re going to stop buying recyclables because of what’s going on in China,” Michele, 52, said. “They pay $1.61 a pound for aluminum now.”

Michelle said people inside the camp weren't "talking much about the closure and scheduled move.”

City Manager Martin Bernal has weighed in numerous times on the issue, including in a recent press release: “Responding to concerns raised by the Fire Chief and the County Health Director about conditions at the Gateway encampment, the City Council authorized the City’s Fire Chief on April 9 to develop a plan to improve health and safety conditions within the camp.”

Bernal spelled out a plan last week that includes temporary relocation of camp residents and camp cleanup; site/sleeping space layout; installation of additional hygiene and security measures; and ongoing interim operations management with the management plan to go into effect as soon as possible. “The San Lorenzo benchlands site will be managed by an outside operator and there will be security and hygiene…and remain in place about a week, while the cleanup and planning of the Gateway Encampment is conducted.”

The full motion can be found here: https://htv-prod-media.s3.amazonaws.com/files/ross-federal-court-1556059839.pdf

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Editor's Note: Tony Nunez contributed to this report. 

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