Dear Jane and other friends of the natural world,
I’m going to take a slight detour this week and focus on the ‘people’ side of our River Mysteries blog. In just two days, the 200 or more homeless campers at Camp Ross will be forced to evacuate with no clear plan from the City on where they are all to go. Many will no doubt return to our river banks, the Pogonip and City Parks – with the inevitable environmental impact. And the campers will lose the community of friends and fellow sufferers that they have built and value, and the safety it affords them.
Part of the reason that you and I have focused on the urban river, and especially birds, is that urban wildlife and habitat is so sorely misunderstood, neglected and mistreated. I feel that, in the same way, the very vulnerable human population of homeless campers is badly understood and treated disrespectfully. Under the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all human beings have a right to be treated with dignity.
So – for the last couple of weeks I have left my binoculars at home and instead carried a notebook and pen as I headed up river to the crowded Ross Camp wedged into a small space between the Ross Store and the glitzy “Welcome to Santa Cruz’ sign at the main highway entrance to Santa Cruz. I wanted to know who was living there, wanted to know from their own mouths what they were struggling with.
I visited five times, and each time I came away touched and sobered, depressed and impressed, shocked and thrilled. It is that kind of camp! It needs a combination of John Steinbeck, Walt Whitman and Charles Dickens to tell the story, as well as a first rate modern documentary film. This report, long as it is, is extremely superficial. Nonetheless, it was an important experience for me, and I hope others will be interested in the people I met and learned from. I have changed all the names except three who gave me permission to use their full name.
I’ll start with the most important thing that I learned. I used to think that food, water and shelter were the most important elements of meeting our human survival needs, a la Abraham Maslow. But after talking to at least twenty people from the camp, I have begun to revise that belief. In some cases at least, community seems to be as important to survival as water. ALICE, a quiet, beautiful and slightly dishevelled young woman told me, “A lot of people here don’t have family. This is what we have. Don’t take it away unless you can give us something better.” This sentence still brings tears to my eyes as I write it. Can’t the wonderful community of Santa Cruz understand this basic truth and build their programs on this foundation. City workers go home after a hard days work to children, spouses, parents, friends. Will they really deny ‘family’, and the safety this provides, to those who may need it most. It is not enabling to be humane.
One woman I talked to at length was MAGGIE ROCHELLE, not a homeless person but an art instructor in Houston, Texas and a mother who had not heard from her son, Alan, in three years. She had done some serious detective work and had followed her son from Houston to Santa Cruz. As she said, “If he had lived out in the woods, I would never have found him. But he was at the camp here and I found him!” Last week, she drove him to Oakland to help him buy a banjo and he has been playing at the camp ever since. Her son has not yet broken free of his drug habit, but Maggie feels that he seems to be doing better, the two of them are more connected, and she is more hopeful about his future. She has visited Alan in the camp almost every day for a month, even staying with him in his tent for three days to learn more about his life. As I talked to her yesterday, another young man who had been the one to lead her to her son’s tent on the first day strolled by. He had disappeared and she had been worried. But he had been at the Janus drug recovery center for 52 days, had put on 30 pounds, and was neatly dressed and shaven. He was completely out of touch with his own mother and seemed almost as happy to see Maggie as she was to see him. Maggie had tears in her eyes as she gave him a warm embrace.. A little love goes a long ways, especially in a homeless camp.
A man I met on my first visit was KEVIN SCOTT JONES, 57 years old, a wiry, lively man with long curly brown hair tumbling down to his shoulders. He danced around and talked with great animation as he explained a little about his life to me and Councilmember Sandy Brown. He had grown up with an abusive stepfather in Felton, his home had burned to the ground when he was seven years old, he had been living outside since then, except when he had a girlfriend or was in jail. Ironically, he committed his first ‘crime’ when he took some gold coins from under the bed of a housemate who owed him money. He did it in order to keep a promise to a girlfriend that they wouldn’t end up on the streets. Over the course of his life, he ended up spending a total of 20 years behind bars. He said he usually sleeps during the days and only goes out at night when there is less tempation to steal. He has cancer and is in constant pain, bleeding every time he urinates. He said he is impervious to cold after having lived outside so many years. He said his nickname was ‘Nobody’ and proudly showed us the word boldly tattooed in large black letters on his back. He loves the community aspect of Ross Camp and told us that he knows the names of most people in the camp. People know him, too. For me the most significant moment of our talk came when someone from outside the Camp walked up to him in stockinged feet and said he needed a pair of shoes to be allowed to get into court for his own hearing. Kevin asked for his shoe size and then immediately took off his own shoes and gave them to the man. Kevin said he does not need a house, much less a managed shelter. He does not want medical care. He likes the community aspect of the Ross Camp, but would also love just a small piece of land that he can control himself, and on which he might even be able to build a small cabin. Nobody created the land. Why shouldn’t a small but fair share of it belong to Nate? Who is stealing from whom?
On my walk up to the Camp I met TOM, a young man in his 20’s with a sensitive face and gentle demeanor. He was traveling the coast, working on organic farms, interested in permaculture and justice, and clearly trying to come to grips with the terrible injustices in the world. He was circling around the Ross Camp, trying to make sense of it, but not able to enter that world so much tougher than the world he came from. He had stayed briefly at the Veterans shelter and was searching for a sanctioned place where he could simply hang a hammock in exchange for some kind of service, a tent being too heavy to carry everywhere. He said he became delusional when he didn’t get good food to eat. He was very understanding of both sides in the conflict between the housed and unhoused, pointing out how isolated many housed people were, how many of those people are working hard and are still close to homelessness themselves. He talked about communal land trusts as a good answer, but said that the banks control the market and they are stopping positive social change. He also longed for a ‘festival culture’ of dancing and gardening. Would it be so hard to find some land and put up some hooks where the lovely Toms of this world could hang their hammocks as they search for peace and justice for all of us?
I met DANE, in his sixties, not at the Ross Camp but just outside the only entrance to a spanking new Benchlands campground in a large grassy area that stretches along the river in San Lorenzo Park. A middle-aged white man, well-dressed and clean shaven, Dane was re-visiting his history by visiting this tightly-managed camp, much like the River St. Shelter where Dane had stayed last year period of homelessness. “The River St. Shelter saved my life. It gave me a stable place to get over a temporary setback and find housing again”. Dane and I learned from the four guards at the one entrance to the Benchlands Campground that campers are offered free tents on platforms, free sleeping bags, clean water. The City also promises transitional services to help people find medical treatment, drug treatment, housing, jobs. It seems like it might be a camper’s dream come true. But very few are biting. Why?
Because the Benchlands Campground is scheduled to be open for only 7 days, and was never intended as anything more than a place to temporarily ease the evacuation of the Ross Camp. Nor is the City’s promise of two months at the River St. Shelter after the Benchlands close an enticement to most of the Ross campers. Why did the City think that the Ross campers would choose this option – forsaking their community and their freedom for five days at the chain-link fence surrounded Benchlands and then two months in a dusk to dawn only camp. Is it any wonder that the homeless lose their faith in the City. I don’t think the City has met or or really listened to most of the people I talked to at the Ross Camp.
DESIREE QUINTERO (her real name) is a 54-year-old woman with thyroid cancer and the political and moral strength of a bulldog. She is intelligent and articulate, a determined leader of the camp, a former firefighter and the the first-named plaintiff on the lawsuit Quintero v. the City of Santa Cruz, which challenged the legality of closing the Ross Camp. (The lawsuit lost in the local court, was temporarily overruled in the federal district court in San Jose but was finally sustained in federal court on Monday, April 29.. All residents at the Ross Camp will be forcibly evicted this Friday, May 3.. The word is that the campers are planning to occupy another ‘illegal’ site.
Desiree flinches slightly when I ask her about her childhood, but says matter-of-factly “My mother beat the hell out of me. I still suffer from PTSD as a result.” She is proud that she never physically hurt her own four children, and visibly thrilled about the good careers they have made for themselves. She shakes her head when she tells me that she tried to get into the Page Smith program for three years. “I was never bad enough’ to get accepted – no drug problem, no CPS, no bad driving record. Just homeless.” She would love to love to get into subsidized senior housing, since market rate housing is far beyond what she can afford. She uses CBD’s, the non-high marijuana for the pain associated with her cancer. She loves the community that has grown up at the Ross Camp, seems to know almost everyone by name, and talks to everyone. “I’m especially interested in protecting women. Any female can come here to the Ross Camp and nobody is going to mess with them. I am fighting for the women more than anything.” She shakes her head again when she hears that the Benchlands camp will check for weapons at the gate. “We all carry weapons” she said, showing me her buck knife in a belt pouch. “We carry them to protect ourselves, cut rope, etc. Every homeless person needs a knife. How can we move to the Benchlands?”
“I would love a round-the-clock Homeless Center with storage and showers and kind people. It’s all about being respectful and kind.” She believes the homeless can govern themselves and has worked hard to make that a reality at the Ross Camp. .She would like a non-profit like Food Not Bombs to be the official manager, not the City.
Desiree introduced me to CHERYL(50’s) a slightly beaten down looking middle-aged woman with what looked like a permanently damaged, probably blind eye. She does not live in the Ross Camp but visits friends there while camping on the nearby tracks. I asked her if she felt safe there. “I’ve got a boyfriend, my knife and an attitude”, she responded with humor and barely concealed pride. Her voice was surprisingly strong.
MICHAEL SWEATT is a tall, handsome, black man, probably in his thirties, articulate, a leader in the camp and one of the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit against the City. He grew up in Kentucky where he admits he suffered a lot of violence both at home and from other kids in the neighborhood. “I never had a childhood, I’m jealous of those who got that, I always have to be the adult,” he says. He has lived in Santa Cruz for 23 years. His campsite is completely shipshape, and he has
put a lot of effort into keeping the whole camp clear of as much trash as possible. But when others, especially “outsider party kids”, trash the Camp he becomes enraged. He knows that a lot of people in Santa Cruz stereotype all campers as trashing the camp and he hates it when a few campers feed that image.
MELANIE is a young, healthy looking pregnant woman from Watsonville who is due to deliver in June. She told me that she is homeless because of ‘unhealthy relationships and drugs’. “I have relapsed several times, but I really want to be clean again. I am much happier when I am.”
EUGENIA isa very thin, fine-boned. well dressed Hispanic looking woman who had just gotten out of jail. “I thought my boyfriend would be at the Camp, butI found out yesterday that he was sentenced to nine more years in prison. I just can’t stand it. The whole thing has been so bogus, so unfair”
There is no point concealing the lives of suffering, humiliation and hopelessness that lie close to the surface of so many of the people at the Camp. The pain has led to criminal behavior, drug addiction, and mental health problems. The campers are poor and so they may steal. They are in physical and mental pain, sometimes excruciating, and so they may self-soothe with drugs. They are living in unjust and discriminatory world that leaves many of them enraged. They are victims since childhood of racism and rape, poverty and prison, bad homes and bad schools.
There is commonality, but, as I’ve tried to show, each person’s story is different, and the needs are different. Dane needed a structured shelter with a lot of rules that the City feels comfortable in providing. Tom needs a place where he can hang his hammock, eat healthy organic food, and work on social justice issues. Desiree needs subsidized senior housing, but also a community of people that she can serve, especially women. Nate needs a small plot of land on which to build a small house. Many of them would welcome drug rehab programs or mental health programs where they felt respected and where they had a voice in their own lives and treatment. Many have already tried to make it, again and again, in such programs but something hasn’t worked.
Many of the people I talked to have not experienced the kind of respect from the people in power that they deserve, nor have they been encouraged to participate in decisions that affect their lives. Until the City can adopt an attitude, as well as policies and programs, that clearly recognize the intrinsic dignity of every person in our community, how can we not support the movement of the homeless to build their own world as best they can, with at least a decent campground, clean drinking water, the right to govern themselves, and the right to occupy a piece of public land.
It is, of course, not the fault of our City or County leaders that homelessness exists. The problem is rooted in something much deeper, namely an economic system that valorizes greed and undercuts human connections. But some cities are doing better than we. I hope we will also step up to the plate.
Here is my quote of the day, which can refer to non-human species as well as humans. The earth, after all, belongs to all kinds of species.
“The equal right of all men to the use of land is as clear as their equal right to breathe the air. It is a right proclaimed by the fact of their existence. For we cannot suppose that some men have a right to be in this world, and others no right.” Henry George, Progress and Poverty, 1879
I’m so happy to report that I found my first WOOD DUCK family up behind the Tannery last week.
May we guarantee safe habitats for all living creatures. especially the most vulnerable. May the Ross Camp morph into something that works well for both the campers, all other humans in our City, and the non-human creatures that populate our river.