SANTA CRUZ (KPIX 5) — Tens of thousands of visitors this Labor Day weekend coming to enjoy Santa Cruz’s signature, marquee beach will share the the coastline with a growing number of homeless campers.
As many as two dozen tents have cropped up on the sand, congregating mostly on the far western end of Main Beach near the wharf and on the eastern end near the banks of the San Lorenzo River.
For years, the homeless have largely avoided the heavily trafficked beach, which is directly adjacent to the Boardwalk. But the May closure of Ross Camp, a densely populated camp near the Highway 1 and Highway 17 interchange, scattered more than 100 occupants across the region.
“This is kind of like playing a game of whack a mole or putty. You push in one location, they pop up in another location, because we’re not dealing with the core of the problem,” said Andy Mill, Santa Cruz Chief of Police.
Main Beach, unlike neighboring beaches, has no curfew. The California Coastal Commission has mandated that it stay open 24 hours a day in order to maximize access.
Also helping the homeless is the federal case of Martin v. Boise, the 2018 landmark ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that stipulates the homeless cannot be punished for sleeping on public property unless adequate shelter can be provided.
As a result, Chief Mills has increased patrols on Main Beach and has directed officers and rangers to write tickets for infractions such as smoking, possession of alcohol or glass containers, and littering. Each citation results in a 24 hour ban from the beach.
But between the state’s mandate and the court ruling, it means the homeless will likely be on the sand for the foreseeable future if they abide by the city’s rules.
“Take a look at it. We’ve got hundreds of tents on the beach. So we’re not going to segment out one section of society and say, ‘You can’t have a tent, but everyone else can.’ So we have to be a little clearer in our mandates. What do we want as a city? And the police will absolutely enforce what we can,” said Mills.
Mark Peabody, one of the occupants on the western side, said he lost his home in 2017 when his landlord suddenly doubled his $2,300 monthly rent overnight. Peabody set up a tent a week ago, after seeing that many were being allowed to stay overnight. He recalled being woken up the first morning by a city employee.
“I thought I was getting busted. But as it turned out, we just need to move our tents for the sweeper. So we just move our tents like 50 feet until the sweeper is done, and then we can move them back into place, and be here another day or night,” said Peabody.
Peabody says camping on the beach is “most definitely” better than staying inside the city.
“You don’t have to worry about a homeowner calling and complaining. You’re away from the traffic, and pedestrian issues. It feels like you’re more out camping,” said Peabody.
Micah Posener, a resident of Santa Cruz for 30 years, said he felt comfortable bringing his family to play in the surf and that “the public beach is for everyone.”
“They’re not going to have homes until we house them, so that’s what we should do. It’d be better for everyone,” said Posener.
Martín Bernal, Santa Cruz City Manager, said there have not been any major incidents or issues, but says they “can’t ignore it.”
“If individuals are creating blight, and their conduct is anti-social and creating unsafe conditions, then that is a concern and not appropriate” said Bernal, “The beach is not a place for people to reside, it’s not intended for that.”
The city can declare the situation a public nuisance and clear the beach of campers on a short term basis, according to Bernal. But to impose a permanent curfew on Main Beach, the city must collect data and evidence of any problems, the city council must vote to petition the Coastal Commission.
The commission must then vote to approve any changes to the curfew, a process that can takes months or even years.
Chief Mills is worried about the image the campers project of the picturesque beach town, but remains optimistic.
“I’m very hopeful that between all of us, that we can find effectively, thoughtful, meaningful solutions that can truly help people who are homeless, yet provide a high level of safety for our communities. But that’s going to take all of us coming together and coming out of our tribal camps and looking at this more broadly,” said Mills.
Andrew Creech, who set up a tent four days ago, hopes to be able to stay longer.
“There’s always going to be one person that ruins things for everybody. And just because one person makes a mistake doesn’t mean that everybody is bad,” said Creech.
Ludmilla D’Souza, visiting from San Bruno, didn’t even notice the tents because they tend to blend in with the crowd. She said one of the nearby occupants was rude and began shouting at her, making her feel unsafe. The experience gave her pause about returning for another visit.
“I would say, I’m not sure yet. I’ll have to kind of experience the rest of the day and see how it goes,” said D’Souza.