2 deaths this week at large Santa Cruz homeless encampment

Despite two deaths this week, both Santa Cruz city and county officials seem stymied over what to do about a growing homeless encampment at the intersection of Highways 1 and 9.

Caked in mud, and cradling scores of germs, Santa Cruz’ so-called “Tent City” is both an eyesore, and growing make-shift shelter for Central-coast homeless.

“I like it here better than most places I guess…way better than a shelter. A shelter is way dirtier than over here. It’s nastier,” said Mario Macintosh, who lives with his fiancé and dog inside a blue tent.

But city and county officials don’t concur with his assessment. They point to rodent infestations, people living with open wounds and pets, rampant drug use, and prostitution as some of the problems plaguing this months-old encampment.

“We have medical staff in here several times a week giving out wound care kits, fresh water, and narcan – which is an overdose, counter action overdose drug,” said Jason Hoppin, the communications manager for the County of Santa Cruz.

This week, two residents passed away. Sheriff’s investigators said 57-year-old Connie Cunningham died Monday of natural causes, and city police are investigating a second death Tuesday. The death of 68-year-old Raymond Rodriguez in January brings the death count to three this year, out of a population of about 150 people.%INLINE%

“Yeah it concerns me a little bit…two deaths in that short of span, for this population,” said a resident named Nathan who did not want to give his last name.

As bad as tent city has been, it’s also been a benefit for some neighborhoods. The city had closed Grant Park because the homeless were camping out here. Officials have reopened the park since, so many homeless have now taken to living at the encampment.

But one group's blessing is another’s burden. Owners of a neighboring shopping mall say the presence of “Tent City” hurts commerce and threatens safety. The county considered closing the encampment March 15. But a backlash from residents led officials to cancel the plan, and instead work toward other, more permanent, solutions.

“We wanna provide a bed for everyone that wants one. We can’t guarantee that everyone’s gonna take us up on that offer. So we’re looking at different shelter sites. We’ve already decided to extend our emergency winter shelter site through June,” said Hoppin.

The problem of how to house the growing numbers of homeless may pale in comparison to the new, vexing question – how do you convince those here to leave what they now call, home?