Send us your poor, your addicted, your homeless …
Contrary to the opinion of many in our community, this is not a message posted on the roads and pathways leading into Santa Cruz.
But the widespread belief Santa Cruz County is a haven for the destitute and the desperate explains the public support for the sweeps of illegal encampments taking place in the city of Santa Cruz and the county.
Not everyone, of course, agrees that cleaning out squatters’ camps, which long existed in private and public spaces along Highway 9 and the edge of Pogonip, is long overdue.
Opponents say the sweeps are targeting people who have no means to defend themselves, no other resources and few other options. Critics say police and sheriff’s deputies conducting the raids are not really solving a problem, but are just pushing camp denizens on to another illegal site, somewhere else, in someone else’s backyard or forest clearing.
It’s a valid point and one we hope local authorities consider as they continue a sweeps program that so far has identified more than a dozen campsites just in the Highway 9/San Lorenzo River/Pogonip area, long considered a prime hideout for drug criminals and their addicted prey.
It would, of course, be naive to think that just because campers are first warned to vacate and pack their trash, then cited, somehow the problem will just go away.
In a raid last week at a camp off Highway 9, deputies noted that some of the campers were the very people previously driven out of similar hovels by Santa Cruz city police. Law enforcement has been handing out cards with information about Santa Cruz’s relatively extensive services to help the homeless. But many illegal campers are either unwilling to abide by the rules and regulations of formal shelter programs or in no shape to show up because of drug and alcohol issues.
What’s staggering, but only somewhat surprising, is how many camps have gained a foothold. The sweeps began in early July, after Santa Cruz police and parks officials continued to hear complaints about garbage, environmental and criminal problems in areas popular with illegal campers such as the river levee area, Highway 9/Pogonip and along Branciforte Creek.
Not only was the alarming concentration of garbage associated with the camps unacceptable, the fire dangers that come with campfires have posed a significant public hazard, especially transient-caused wildfires in Pogonip.
Longstanding complaints from recreational hikers, walkers and bicyclists about drug use and litter including syringes also spurred authorities into finally saying enough was enough. Private owners who have illegal encampments on their property are being asked to help pay for cleanup costs.
Before the most recent sweeps by deputies along Highway 9, the Sentinel reported that as of Aug. 20, Santa Cruz police cleared out 54 illegal camps and identified 159 camps.
But ticketing illegal campers or arresting people for drug possession often only means these same transients are back on the streets relatively quickly — if they ever leave — and then trudging off to illegal campsites during evening hours.
It’s a thorny issue. Santa Cruz, city and county, is a liberal, tolerant place and many residents are uncomfortable with what they may think are heavy-handed tactics aimed at transients.
But clearly, the fact that perhaps 200 or so illegal camps have been identified is extremely disturbing. The scope of the problem is enough to warrant a public debate over a longer-range strategy for both getting services to the deserving needy and strongly discouraging lawbreaking transients from pitching a tent in the first place.
This post is the Sentinel Editorial for Sept. 19, 2012