Dear Jane and Fellow Nature Lovers,
An unusual flaming bird was cited on the San Lorenzo River on November 10. It was witnessed by the heads of both the Santa Cruz Police Department and Fire Department as well as by many unhoused members of our community. Six days later, by order of the City of Santa Cruz, the bird was deliberately flushed from an enclosed area at the corner of Highway 1 and River St.
By now you may have guessed that I am slyly speaking of the mythological PHOENIX – and of Camp Phoenix, the short-lived homeless encampment located on the site of the former Ross Camp , next to the River and Felker St. Bridge. The encampment, organized by the Santa Cruz chapter of the California Homeless Union, managed to provide a safe space to live for at least 50 unsheltered people in our community – until residents were awakened at 6 a.m November 16th and told that they were “trespassing” and had 10 minutes to leave. Take Back Santa Cruz is the group that, among others, is accused by many of putting pressure on the City to do this.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t there to witness or help with the encampment during its short life. But walking downtown last week, I saw a small, older woman trudging along the Mall, holding up a large banner commemorating Desiree Quintero. (Desiree was one of the women leaders at Ross Camp who was killed October 27 by a falling tree in the Pogonip while visiting a friend and former resident of the Ross Camp. ) I introduced myself and asked the woman about Desiree and Camp Phoenix. I learned that the woman’s name was Lucero Luna and that she had just been released from jail after peacefully refusing to leave Camp Phoenix in an intentional act of civil disobedience. I told her I wrote a blog about birds and people on the river and asked her if I could interview her for my blog. She happily agreed to talk to me.
Lucero believes, like many in the unhoused community, that Desiree would still be alive if the Ross Camp had not been shut down. “She would definitely be here with us if the unhoused had been given their rights,” said Lucero. “But the City decided to shut down Ross Camp and force people back into the parks, alcoves and the Pogonip. The Pogonip was where Desiree died.” Lucero’s eyes filled with tears as as she talked about Desiree.
I told Lucero that I was especially interested in the Camp Phoenix concept of a self-managed community of unhoused. Lucero told me that the local organizers had been inspired by Dignity Village in Portland, a self-governing village created by a group of unsheltered persons whose website says “we came out of the doorways of Portland’s streets, out from under the bridges, from under the bushes of the public parks… and created a green, self-governing village that has now been in existence for 19 years.”
Camp Phoenix adopted the “Five Rules” of Dignity Village to guide their young encampment. Lucero listed the five for me – no violence; no theft; no alcohol or drugs within a one-block radius; no constant disruptive behavior; and at least 10 hours per week of work for village upkeep. Anyone who breaks any of these rules must leave.
I asked Lucero how the camp had worked for the five days that it existed. “We were so proud of what we were accomplishing, even in the short time that we were there” said Lucero. “On Sunday, the first day, we had to deal with huge piles of wood chips dumped on the lot since the Ross Camp was closed. So we decided to have a Wood Chip Raking Party. Many Santa Cruz people worked together with camp residents to spread the chips evenly. . It was great! We worked really hard. When we finished, people could set up their tents.”
Lucero told me that Food Not Bombs had donated $2000 for portapotties, handwashing stations and tents.
The first day the encampment was opened, Lucero was one of the organizers who sat at the entrance, welcoming new residents and handing them all a copy of the Five Rules. Judging from what a friendly, open-hearted person Lucero seemed to be, I can imagine that the new residents received a warm welcome from her!
At first, it seemed to the organizers that the City was working with them. According to Lucero, “ police chief Mills visited and we didn’t get any sense from him that this was illegal. We thought we were protected by the new federal law, Martin v. Boise.” (That is the law that guarantees that a City may not arrest or cite people for sleeping on public property unless the City can provide adequate and relatively accessible indoor accommodations.) Lucero told me that the fire chief also visited us and told organizers that the tents had to be 5 feet from each other and 3 feet from the fence around the camp. The residents also created a wide path down the middle for easy fire and police vehicle access.
“We were careful to follow what they told us,” said Lucero. “We kept someone stationed at the entrance around the clock to welcome new residents.” Camp hosts rotated hourly health checks throughout the the camp, day and night, in order to make sure that people were safe and that the tents were properly placed.
“We all felt really hopeful,”Lucero told me. “We were keeping the camp really clean. Previous residents were happy to be back in their community. We were planning to have a community garden at the far end of the camp. Someone offered to create a solar charger for our cell phones. Art projects were being thought about.”
Then the City shut down the camp. “They crushed a lot of peoples’ dreams,” said Lucero. “They woke us up at 6 a.m and told us we were trespassing and had ten minutes to leave. I decided to do civil disobedience. I peacefully refused to leave. I was arrested and taken to jail. “
I asked Lucero how the City could close down the camp now that the federal case of Martin v. the City of Boise had established that a City could not arrest or cite people for sleeping on public property unless the City could provide adequate and relatively accessible indoor accommodations. Lucero said that the City is now trying to get around this new federal law by claiming that the Phoenix Camp was occupying a closed-off area. “The City itself closed off the area, and is now using “Trespassing” as the official charge, claiming that “trespassing” isn’t covered under Martin v. Boise.”
Lucero said that the City has just crafted a new ordinance that they will present at the Tuesday, November 25th City Council meeting, The new ordinance will propose new ways to circumvent Martin v. Boise. The City chambers was packed. I attended as did Lucero and other homeless men, women and children.. I saw roughly 40 housed and unhoused community members speak out strongly against the new ordinance. Speakers included a member of the ACLU as well as a lawyer for the California Homeless Union who warned the Council that they could easily open themselves to a lawsuit if they pursued this course. Community activist Scott Graham pointed out that the spirit of Martin v. Boise was being violated by the new ordinance. The whole point of that case, he said, was to protect the homeless from citation or arrest if there was no other place for them to sleep. The new ordinance, according to him, tries to get around that. As a result of overwhelming community unhappiness with the proposed ordinance, the Council voted unanimously to return the ordinance for reconsideration to the Community Advisory Committee on Homelessness (CACH), made up of a broad spectrum of community members, including currently homeless representatives. But it remained unclear to me (I left towards the end when it was past 11 pm.) how the unsheltered were to manage in a City with even fewer spaces than last year and continuing unclarity about their legal rights.
Still, it was a great meeting. I love it when we see democracy alive and well in Santa Cruz – covered by Community Television. Stay tuned.
I always want to know more about the lives of the people who are currently unsheltered in Santa Cruz. What landed them on the streets? I asked Lucero if she would be willing to tell me about her life. She was somewhat reluctant, not wanting to dwell on the hardships. But she said she knew that this was part of what the community needed to know in order to contradict the stereotypes. So she talked to me quite openly. She grew up in extreme poverty in Mexico, part of a family of 11 people, all living in one large room that was used for storage of harvested food as well as for sleeping and eating. She remembers sleeping on a lumpy dirt floor that she would try to make more level each night. She remembers that from age 4 she was expected to help with the planting each year. She remembers the little cloth bag called a morales, filled with corn, bean and squash seeds, and planting first a corn seed, then a bean seed, then the third sister, the squash seed.
She was sent to a one-room school for a short time, but because of the crowded and chaotic conditions of the “school” and because she suffered from undiagnosed auditory processing disorder, she was declared “unteachable” and forced to leave the school . At age 9, she tried to defend her mother against physical abuse by her father, was raped by a relative, and was also forced to leave home in order to help with family finances. She worked five days a week as a live-in nanny and a domestic, returning on weekends to “work even harder” she said with her sunny smile. At 11 years she left her home state in Zacatecas to get domestic work in Jalisco, and at 14 years old was brought to the U.S. by her grandmother to get work in the U.S. It wasn’t until she reached the age of 18 that she finally had a chance to return to school.
Somehow she managed to rise above all these challenges, got a degree in Early Childhood Education, even became a family daycare trainer with West Ed, one of the best early childhood consulting agencies in the state of California. As a former childcare worker, I bonded with Lucero around this!
Lucero eventually managed to get her own home, but was eventually pushed out onto the streets by a combination of domestic violence, foreclosure, chronic hospitalization and post-surgical complications. Since 2001 she has been on the streets, first as what she calls “a vehicle dweller” and since July of this year sleeping at night in a protected area on the Pacific Garden Mall. She is 55 years old. She has become a soft-spoken but ardent and seemingly tireless advocate for the what she calls the “unsheltered” or “houseless”.
In some ways, Lucero never forgot her childhood.. She told me that even when she was housed in Ventura, she felt guilty about enjoying such luxury while the homeless were being dumped along the river bottom.
A young man named Cloud that I met while talking to Lucero at the Food Not Bombs dinner on Sunday night praised Lucero, describing how Lucero gently cared for an incontinent man whom Cloud had found helplessly lying in front of the Bank of America, unable to stand up or walk. Cloud called Food Not Bombs who transported the man to the only place available which was Camp Phoenix. “Lucero was the one who welcomed the man to the Camp, gently cleaned him, found him new pants, and helped him get a tarp, a mat, and some cushioning cardboard. The next day she also found him a wheelchair.”
Cloud told me that he “lives in hope that people will open their minds and understand that the defining sign of a culture is how we treat the most vunerable.” He is a quiet, gentle man – dressed in a long skirt, and a longtime member of the Rainbow Tribe He had wanted help Camp Phoenix create truly democratic meetings like the ones in the Rainbow Tribe. . He never had the chance. The first meeting was scheduled for the day that the Camp was shut down.
While talking to Lucero and Cloud, I also had a chance for a quick word with Alicia Kuhl, perhaps the major leader and spokesperson for the Santa Cruz chapter of the California Homeless Union which organized Camp Phoenix. I asked her how she felt when they shut down Camp Phoenix. She said that for several days, she was depressed and stayed in bed. “They had temporarily killed our hopes and dreams. But now we will organize and come back with a plan.”
I feel the City must find a way to draw on the vision, energy and experience of people like Lucero, Cloud, Alicia and many more. If we can support these dedicated people, maybe someday there will be a Phoenix Village in Santa Cruz that the whole community, including the unsheltered, can be proud of.
Buddhist prayers often include words of gratitude and respect for “all living creatures”, including the flora, the fauna and all human beings.
Let’s include similar words in our Thanksgiving celebrations. Happy Thanksgiving to all of you.