Homeless During the Pandemic Santa Cruz County developing shelters on the fly

By Susan Landry

Living in a truck is never easy, but lately, it’s been especially tough, said Brian Bryson, who’s called his 2005 Ford Ranger home for the last two years. In March, he lost his job as a chef when the Felton restaurant where he worked closed following shelter in place mandates.

“This is the first time I’ve been somewhere like this,” said Bryson of the free, once-per-week shower services at the Santa Cruz Warming Center. “If something were to happen to my truck or I don’t get my job back, I don’t know what the hell I’ll do. I don’t know what step to take next.”

Bryson isn’t alone. Recently, client numbers have spiked at the Warming Center, which provides people experiencing homelessness with key services like laundry, storage and showers, said center executive director Brent Adams.

In Santa Cruz County, there are approximately 2,167 homeless individuals, about 78 percent of whom are typically unsheltered, according to the 2019 Point-in-Time Count. Of that total, about 39 percent report a “disabling condition” and 8 percent are over the age of 61.

The homeless population is considered particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks because they often lack the ability to shelter in place, practice physical distancing and uphold safe hygiene practices. In an effort to address these issues, the county established the Shelter & Care Task Force to oversee homeless services and a four-part response plan.

Part one of the plan involves creating isolation spaces for people to safely quarantine. So far, the county has secured 117 hotel rooms for this purpose at three different sites. Each room is between $60 and $75 per night, with added costs for security, staffing, meals and transportation. The total price tag is unclear, but the county plans to request reimbursements from FEMA and California’s Project Roomkey.

People who test positive for COVID-19 are given highest priority for the rooms, followed by those who are symptomatic, were exposed or are considered high risk.

So far, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 among Santa Cruz’s homeless population, but only those experiencing symptoms — about 10 people so far — are getting tested, said county communications manager Jason Hoppin via email.

Adams assisted several clients with the referral process to get a room. “They were over 65 and had respiratory issues so they were prime candidates, but they weren’t getting the motels,” said Adams. “Two weeks went by and they were still in an overcrowded shelter.”

At the time, only one hotel space was operating in the county. When the two additional spaces opened up, one of those clients was able to secure a room where they’re staying now. Still, he said, it was difficult to find answers about delays despite repeated calls to the Warming Center’s contact at the county.


When news started circulating about the coronavirus, Housing Matters — Santa Cruz’s largest homelessness services nonprofit — quickly ramped up cleaning procedures, restructured its meal services, and spaced out shelter residents by setting up tents, Pallet shelters and isolation spaces.

“We’re doing the right things. We’re following the mandated protocols … but the virus is here, you know? It’s here. And we operate with that reality and that concern,” said Phil Kramer, Housing Matters executive director. “There’s absolutely a heightened sense of anxiety.”

The moves allowed the nonprofit to continue sheltering all of its 200-plus clients, an important step for Santa Cruz overall.

Under Gavin Newsom’s reopening plan, any county hoping to further relax shelter-in-place restrictions must prove its capacity to temporarily shelter at least 15 percent of its homeless residents. Pre-COVID, the existing system could support about 444 people, putting Santa Cruz comfortably above this threshold, Hoppin said.

The CDC recommends allowing existing encampments to continue, unless alternative, individual housing units are available.

As existing shelters implemented social distancing guidelines, that capacity decreased to 378. To make up the difference, the county opened two emergency shelters at the Watsonville and Santa Cruz County Veterans Memorial Buildings which can accommodate approximately 100 people.

An additional site serving up to 29 youth ages 18 to 24 was opened at the Simpkins Family Swim Center in Santa Cruz. About 95 percent of individuals in this age bracket typically go unsheltered in the county.

Another plan to temporarily house young adults and their families in state-donated trailers is facing some backlash from local residents, who cite concerns of safety, increased crime and fire danger in their neighborhood.

The initial plan would have housed 40 to 60 youth at the Seventh Day Adventist Campus on Old San Jose Road, with potential to increase up to 90 people. The revised plan will be limited to just 30 people initially, with any expansion capped at a maximum of 50.

Currently, there are 500 people sheltered across the county’s 23 shelter sites, according to the Task Force’s May 20 update.

Of course, setting up spaces is only one part of the equation. Another is reaching those who wouldn’t normally access these spaces.

“We certainly have folks that are outside of our shelter systems that aren’t following recommended health protocols,” said Kramer. “They aren’t necessarily sheltering, they aren’t meeting the social distancing guidelines. They’re in very close quarters. So we’re attempting to reach out to everyone … and yet we need to do more.”

One of these people is 67-year-old Mark Brodie, who sleeps in a tent near Emeline Avenue, a space he’s called home for the last five years. His Social Security checks are enough to pay for the basics, but not enough to pay rent, he said.

Brodie knows he is considered high risk for the coronavirus, but is unsure how to access a space to isolate. “I would love that, but no one’s told me anything about how to get a room,” he said, adding that in his current situation, even washing his hands is a challenge. “It’s kind of hard because I don’t have access to hot running water or soap.”

Kramer explained that in partnership with the county, Housing Matters is implementing ‘place-based’ outreach, connecting with folks, “on the streets, in parks, on the levee, up at Pogonip and across the community,” providing them with resources, information and guidance on best practices. Additionally, the nonprofit is providing meals and other public services on its campus. “We’re trying to give people a reason to come to our campus and then use that as an opportunity to engage with them,” he said.

The county is also employing its own outreach workers to assist people with the referral process and provide hygiene products, water and camping supplies. The Warming Center has passed out about 80 county-provided tents to its clients so far.

Hoppin said shelter space will increase soon, and a fourth hotel isolation site is currently in the works. The county is actively seeking site supervisors to staff the expanded shelters. Housing Matters even loaned out some of its own employees to help fill vacancies, Kramer said.

Still, the majority of people experiencing homelessness in Santa Cruz remain unsheltered, often taking up residence in places like the Benchlands, an on-again-off-again encampment in the heart of downtown.

The CDC recommends allowing existing encampments to continue, unless alternative, individual housing units are available. Currently, there are several dozen tents set up at the Benchlands with a handful of hand-washing stations and portable bathrooms nearby.

Adams of the Warming Center expressed concern about insufficient services and oversight at the camps. “Don’t let them fool you, they’re not bringing real services into these places,” he said, drawing comparisons to the city’s now shut down Ross Camp. “When you bring hundreds of people together with no social agreement, you end up with the lowest common denominator of behaviors running the show. So we’re really unhappy that that’s being done again.”

Recently, an unsanctioned encampment on Coral Street was cleared out and replaced with a “Homeless Outreach Support Site” where 18 people are now in shelter. According to the task force’s May 13 update, all 18 residents have been provided with hygiene services and three meals per day.

Many of these expanded services — like the site on Old San Jose Road — are set to end when shelter in place orders do. For those in hotel rooms, length of stay will depend on how quickly the county “progresses through the state’s Resilience Roadmap,” Hoppin said.

The future of other services is less clear, particularly as the county and state face massive revenue downturns.

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Susan Landry

About Susan Landry

Susan Landry is a freelance journalist currently living in Capitola. She loves plants, rock climbing, cooking, and almost anything to do with the outdoors. She can be reached at susanamandalandry@gmail.com.