SANTA CRUZ (KPIX) — A homeless encampment off of Highway 1 as it enters Santa Cruz has exploded in size in the past few weeks and law enforcement can’t legally kick squatters off the property, a Santa Cruz city spokesperson confirmed Thursday.

“We can’t actually tell them to leave,” said Santa Cruz community relations specialist Eileen Cross. “It’s against the law now.”

A new federal law makes it illegal for law enforcement to cite or arrest anyone for sleeping or camping on public property if the city or county doesn’t have enough shelter beds.

According to county numbers, 80 percent of the more than 2,200 homeless population is unsheltered.

Dozens of homeless people have pitched tents on a stretch of city-owned property near the Gateway Plaza shopping center. The encampment is almost as wide and long as a football field.

Business owners, like Michael Spadafora, said it’s costing them.

“Drug arrests, we’ve had cars broken into, somebody tried to light the bathroom on fire at my store,” Spadafora said.

He said the growing number of homeless roaming the parking lot has caused a 10 to 15 percent drop in business and he’s not the only one feeling the impact.

“That is the operating budget margin for most of our businesses here,” he said.

Meanwhile, Cross said they are doing the best they can. The city put out toilets, trash bins and hygiene stations near the camp. County workers also make regular trips to talk to the homeless about services and resources.

“Right now we’re just trying to manage health and safety with the campers,” Cross said. “This is our highest priority right now in our community and so we are actively looking for ways to house these people and shelter them.”

The city and county recently received $10 million in state money to spend on the homeless but Cross said it will take time to figure out how they will spend that money.

Carrie Goodman, who lives in Santa Cruz, said she noticed the encampment and became concerned for the homeless.

She and other local moms gathered Thursday to drop off food.

“There’s some sadness in my heart that this is their only option,” she said.

While city leaders have said they are doing what they can, Spadafora feels it’s not happening fast enough.

“A lot of us are small businesses and we can’t keep sustaining this,” he said.

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