SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (KGO) -- When drivers enter the City of Santa Cruz, it's hard to miss the massive homeless encampment located at Highway 1 and River Street, near the Gateway Plaza.
The sea of tents provides a very visible example of the homelessness issue we're experiencing across the Bay Area and beyond.
Many relate Santa Cruz County to the city's Beach Boardwalk or other beautiful views. However, a growing rate of homelessness is the reality.
An estimated 150 people have made a home behind the Ross Dress for Less store at the Gateway Plaza.
Santa Cruz Fire Chief, Jason Hajduk spoke on behalf of the City of Santa Cruz about issues surrounding the encampment.
"It's a challenging situation, ultimately," Hajduk said. "It's not going to be one agency or one entity that is going to solve it."
Hajduk explained one challenge in managing the group's growth is a new federal law which prevents the city from enforcing a sleeping or camping ban without having enough shelter space.
"Which is a county and state responsibility," he said.
However, part of a proposed Joint Action Plan by city and county staff would increase immediate and year-round shelter capacity by at least 100. The assistance is tailored to those living among this sea of tents.
About one month ago, Homeless Persons Health Project staff went out and surveyed people living at the encampment.
Santa Cruz County Homeless Services Coordinator, Rayne Marr told ABC7 News, "They're basically just a microcosm of the overall homeless population in Santa Cruz County. They're not terribly different. There's no theme that emerged. They have about the same demographics as the overall homeless population here."
The City and County said the homeless population across Santa Cruz reached crisis point. A press release shows the number of unsheltered homeless people across the county is among the highest in the country, with 80 percent having no access to shelter.
However, even with the potential of placement, some of Santa Cruz's homeless say it's not the way they want to live.
"There's rules and regulations," Kevin Scott Jones told ABC7 News, just outside his tent. "Right now, I police myself. I'm the one babysitting me."
Marr acknowledged, "Finding a solution for people who don't necessarily want to go to a traditional shelter, or finding solutions for the highest-need people who may have mental health or other issues, those are the really difficult ones."
She explained the County received a significant amount of funding from the State.
Marr added, "The county has made an emergency allocation of about $1-million to pay for emergency shelter and emergency hygiene services."
In addition, Marr hopes this will allow the county to address other emergency shelter options it can bring online, using those funds.
The proposed action plan calls for the entire unsanctioned camp to be removed by March 15th, 2019.
"I do believe that if they were to shut this thing down, that they would be back on the streets of Santa Cruz," another homeless resident told ABC7 News. "I don't want to say bothering society, but for the most part, they would be underneath doorsteps and roof hangings."
On Tuesday, the City and County will explore potential locations for additional shelters, consider secure areas for safe overnight parking, and discuss increasing existing services like showers, health care, storage, and warming facilities for the group.
Chief Hajduk acknowledged, "There's people who, for various reasons, are homeless and so one solution is not going to fix or solve all of their issues."
Expanding on potential solution, he said, "It's going to require the federal government, the state government, the local county as well as the local municipalities, like the city, to address it in a way that makes a change."
The action plan will be reviewed for approval by the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors and by Santa Cruz City Council. Both will consider the proposal at their February 12th meetings, with the County meeting at 9 a.m. and the City Council at 7 p.m.
For more information on local efforts to reduce homelessness, and the countywide strategic plan to address homelessness, "All In: Toward a Home for Every County Resident," is available here.
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