Starting today, two significant efforts led by the City of Santa Cruz will begin along the lower San Lorenzo River – the required annual maintenance to improve flood capacity in the leveed channel surrounding the river and the phased closure of the Benchlands camp in San Lorenzo Park. The two projects work to ensure that when the winter rains come, people are protected from the rising waters.
This is not a theoretical exercise. Pictured above is when the San Lorenzo Park’s Benchlands Encampment was inundated by a rising San Lorenzo River on December 9, 2021, and below is when the waters surged through the leveed channel during the winter storms in early 2017 (the photo is taken February 7, 2017, from the Chinatown Bridge facing south, with the Benchlands flooded on the left).
While the wider root causes and solutions to homelessness are complex, one thing is clear – no one can safely live in this area during the winter. We’re encouraged by the phased aspect of the closure, ensuring that those currently living in the Benchlands camp are offered alternative shelter and an individual rehousing plan for everyone interested in alternative shelter, supporting both our unhoused neighbors as well as reducing displacement to fire-prone areas during our driest, hottest months. Read on to learn more about the closure, outreach to those living in the Benchlands encampment and alternative shelter sites currently available.
News & Updates: San Lorenzo Park Benchlands Restoration Project moves into camp closure phase
On September 6, fencing was installed in a segment of the park located at the northern point of the Benchlands, near the Water Street Bridge.
Relocation of the approximately 29 people living in the first segment is expected to begin next week, on Monday, September 12 and Tuesday, September 13. Each person will be offered alternative sheltering options at the City Overlook at the Armory.
The full closure of the Benchlands will be a phased process. The closure of additional segments of the Benchlands is dependent on many factors, such as the rate of relocation and the availability of shelter sites.
Outreach & Services at the Benchlands Encampment
The City has been conducting outreach since April of this year to provide information and shelter referral services to the approximately 225 unsheltered people living in the Benchlands. The City outreach team has engaged with nearly all the people at the Benchlands encampment, with an aim of developing an individual rehousing plan for everyone interested in alternative shelter. Outreach staff will be on-site regularly throughout the closure.
The City will continue to provide regular trash service, portable toilets, and running water throughout the duration of the project, and will continue to work with other agencies and partners that are providing services.
Safe sleeping and shelter opportunities
The City Overlook Shelter, operated by The Salvation Army, is a tent-based safe sleeping program located on the Armory lawn that has space for 75 tents. The City has expanded the program at the Armory to include 60 tent spaces inside the building, for a total of 135 shelter spaces at this location. City programs at the Armory offer participants two meals a day, shower facilities, private tent-space, and transportation to and from the site. The Armory program also offers access to support services and case management.
The City is currently enrolling participants in the Safe Parking Program that provides overnight parking for cars and longer-term parking options for RVs up to three months.
Access to San Lorenzo Park
The City’s goal is to restore the Benchlands for public open space, environmental protection, and flood protection. The upper part of the park including the lawn and planting bed, lawn bowling green, Duck Pond, and playground are currently closed. Public routes will remain open through the park along the Riverwalk and from Dakota Avenue to the Chinatown Bridge and the Branciforte Pedestrian Bridge.
The upper park likely will remain closed for the duration of the restoration operation, which is expected to continue for several months. The schedule for repair and replacement of park amenities and infrastructure will be determined as these initial phases of the project are completed.