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How Santa Cruz is preparing to shelter the homeless after the Benchlands camp floods

KION-TV / Lisa Principi

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (KION) Images last week captured the destructive toll that floodwaters took on the homeless community in Santa Cruz, highlighting the city's need to find safe places for the unhoused to stay during natural disasters.

Last Monday, those on the edges of the San Lorenzo River found themselves in under a foot of water during the atmospheric river. The city now says they're working to make sure the homeless have somewhere else to go as rain returns later this week.

Luckily, no one was injured when the Benchlands camp flooded last week. Some of those who were evacuated have now been temporarily moved to Depot Park. The city has cordoned off the parking lot, adding sinks and toilets. But the site is now full, with no additional space if there is an emergency.

"There is room in the northern part of the Benchlands for folks who need to move from the south Benchlands and from the cemetery, which are the two most low-lying areas along the river," said Elizabeth Smith, spokesperson for the city. "We are asking that people relocate to that location for now as we continue to try to locate new spaces for people to go."

Rob Oatey, Interim Fire Chief for Santa Cruz, said crews were back at the low-lying areas Monday to warn people who have either returned, or never left.

"There have been folks that have repopulated, but our staff again is out there today making contact with those individuals and making the recommendation that they seek higher ground and stay out of that area during this season, so that there is no danger of them being swept away or losing any of their belongings," said Oatey.

But Santa Cruz County has one of the highest per-capita rates of homelessness in all of California, and the city says county resources are falling short to help with the crisis.

"We are full in terms of shelter beds that are available in the county," said Smith. "We were able to during the last storm place four people who were either medically vulnerable or elderly in the Armory as those spots became available."

Smith says the city is still trying to identify other areas that the homeless can go while there is a risk of flooding in the Benchlands. But they are running into problems with staffing and finding placements that will work.

"We are in the process of looking for those kinds of locations so that we can stand up those resources ourselves. But staffing is always an issue. So we're really trying to figure out, how do we find locations and how do we staff them once we have those locations in place," said Smith.

"We want to make sure that police and fire have access to these areas so that we can quickly respond to any emergency that may occur," added Oatey.

There are currently two long-term projects in the works that have been brought before the city council.

"We're looking at a 75 person program up at the Armory alongside with the county programs right now, as well as establishing two transitional community camps. One at 1220 River [Street]. That'll be the first one. That's for another 30 to 35 persons, and that's been slated to come online in January," said Larry Imwalle, City of Santa Cruz Homeless Response Manager.

Mayor Sonja Brunner said that although city offices are closed for the holidays, staff will still be working throughout the storm to make sure they are prepared in case the river floods again.

Smith added that although there is no definitive date, the city hopes to have those who are staying in Depot Park moved into other locations around mid-January.

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Lisa Principi

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

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