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Benchlands homeless camp floods in Santa Cruz

KION-TV / Lisa Principi

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (KION-TV) The flood waters have receded, but the hundreds of people who call the "Benchlands" area along the San Lorenzo River home are still picking up the pieces.

Monday's atmospheric river left those living on the edges of the San Lorenzo River under water.

"We live normal, everyday life here. So we couldn’t just leave everything," said John Palacios, who lives in the encampment. "We made little floating boats to move heavy stuff through the water because the water almost got knee deep. And I mean, it was cold."

Palacios says they tried to move their camps to higher ground in San Lorenzo Park, but he says officers told them they would be cited if they stayed there.

The city sent employees into the camp Monday afternoon to try to move people into a temporary shelter set up at the River Street garage. But it was all voluntary.

"Our emergency team sprang into action and they went to camp sites over four to six hours yesterday, notifying people that they needed to get to higher ground, letting them know about the shelter that opened midday," said Elizabeth Smith, spokesperson for the City of Santa Cruz.

Smith says city employees also went into the camp Friday and Sunday to warn people that the rain was coming, but they did not expect this level of flooding. The county didn't issue evacuation warnings for the areas around the river until after 5 p.m. Monday.

"We expected some rain yesterday, but we did not expect the level of flooding that occurred as the National Weather Service continued to change the forecast,” said Smith.

"City workers helped out, packed up and with their help we were moved from here to across the street in 15-20 minutes. It was a blessing," said Palacios.

About 60 people ended up at the shelter, out of the estimated 200 who live along the river.

"It was a one-on-one activity. So you know, it took a long time to notify folks. And certainly there are people who fell through the cracks," said Smith.

There have been no reported injuries. But some chose to stay behind, worried that everything they own would be gone if they left.

"All day we were like, 'Look, it's time to go. It was time to go.' She's like, 'no, I'm not going nowhere. I'm staying right here,'" Palacios said of one of his neighbors.

Smith says city employees also went out to the camp in the days leading up to the storm to clean some of the trash along the river. A concern many have for the river that flows right into the Monterey Bay.

Greg Pepping is the Executive Director of the Coastal Watershed Council, a non-profit trying to work with the city to transform the lower San Lorenzo River. He went out to the camp Monday night during the floods.

"There was rising waters pulling in the trash and belongings and needles in the river," said Pepping. "The city, I understand, asked people to voluntarily move, and many did not. So I'm glad they're safe. The question is, is that the city's only responsibility? And what about all the stuff that's in the river going into the ocean?"

The City of Santa Cruz is working with the county on plans for cleanup in the camp in the next few days. They say beach cleanup crews were also out Monday morning trying to clean up any trash that may have ended up on Cowell and Main beaches.

But the encampment at the Benchlands and San Lorenzo Park has been a long-standing issue. A previous encampment along the river had to be moved in November of 2020. But in April, the city moved those camping in San Lorenzo Park back to the river.

Palacios said luckily, the water did not get inside his tent. But now, those who call the Benchlands home are working to rebuild.

"We're here to let the rain come and then let it pass, let it dry and then, you know, start over from scratch." said Palacios. "I was fortunate enough to get just like the main necessities out. Like the hygiene products, our clothes and our food we managed to get. The stuff that we did leave behind was like, you know, replaceable."

As for a more permanent solution, the city says they're working to set up a managed camp at 1220 River Street that will house 35 people. They're also looking to expand the current shelter at the National Guard Armory.

Tuesday night the city council was set to discuss the receipt and utilization of $14 million they received from the federal government back in September to help with the homeless crisis in the city.

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Lisa Principi

Lisa Principi is a reporter at KION News Channel 5/46.

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