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[whitespace] Man and Dog Men in Hats: Residents of Camp Paradise have the best hats--and nowhere to hang them permanently.

Photograph by Bobby Woodside


Weekend in Paradise

July 3: Summoned by news that Camp Paradise is about to be busted, Nüz pedals along the river levee to Felker Street, where a sandy trail veers under a graffiti-scrawled bridge and leads to the controversial campsite. The atmosphere in what was once a heroin alley before the campers cleaned it up is tense, despite the idyllic setting.

Under Municipal Code 6.36.010. section C, setting up a campsite with the intention of spending the night is a $54 offense. A first ticket is an infraction, but campers risk arrest on a misdemeanor charge and jail time if ticketed twice within 24 hours. Which leaves Paradise's 20 or so tent dwellers--90 percent of whom work but can't afford rent--vulnerable to being ticketed--especially since area shelters are full.

Warned to move by July 1, the campers remain, insisting they have the right to stay since there is nowhere else to go--and adding that they are searching for another plot of land with the help of attorney Paul Sanford. But tonight, Sanford warns that the police can't guarantee an amnesty while he's vacationing.

"They want to see the goldfish pond and the wooden fences gone, and your stuff in boxes, or they'll start issuing tickets," says Sanford, glancing at his watch as he dashes for his car in an (as it happens unsuccessful) effort to catch a flight to Maine.

With Sanford gone, camp leader Larry "Hot Dog" Templeton, wearing a seasoned 49ers baseball cap, expresses his dissatisfaction: "Don't the police have anything better to do on July 4?"

"Where do they expect us to go?" asks fellow camper Jim "Ghost" Durst, dark hair jammed under a weathered leather hat. "We're not homeless. we're houseless. We have a home, and all the things in it are necessities, not frills. We can't let them bulldoze these tents."

A distressed Danny "Cookie" Blair, who, like many campers, is sporting a crucifix and likes to listen to religious music, shows Nüz inside his tent, which contains a bed, a bookcase, a table and a lucky crystal.

"When you camp in large numbers, the troll busters can't get you. In a big camp it's safe: there are no beatings or attacks and people don't steal your things, " says Cookie.

Templeton shrugs. "Our attorney wants us to go along with the police's request, but we're tired of being ousted, and he's going on vacation, so I guess he's fired," he says.

July 4. Santa Cruz City Homeless Resource Officer Eric Seilley warns Camp Paradise that ticketing will begin July 5, unless residents dismantle signs of permanent infrastructure.

Templeton shakes his head. "We are not leaving," he declares. "All our neighbors are supportive, and Denny's, Chevron and Beacon let us use their bathrooms, because we've improved the neighborhood." Templeton estimates that he and a crew of about 15 campers have removed 24 tons of garbage and two five-gallon buckets of used hypodermic needles since arriving here in January.

"We are a model camp, where people share chores, help each other and grow vegetables," says Ghost, who plans to give workshops for the homeless on how to run a safe and clean camp.

July 5: Former Chamber of Commerce CEO Michael Schmidt, who recently stepped down to concentrate on running for District 3 county supervisor, visits the camp, which he says has been a better ambassador for the homeless cause than any other effort in this town.

"Larry is testing the system in a clean and sober way. He took a no-man's land and turned it into a paradise, and now he's stuck between a rock and a hard place with city attorney, manager, chief of police and mayor saying, 'It's illegal to camp.' But since there are 1,000 to 2,000 homeless people and no shelter space, what else are they supposed to do? Sleeping isn't a choice; it's a human necessity. By criminalizing sleeping and camping and blankets, the city is endangering the 1,000-plus people in this town, who are homeless."

With the help of volunteers, the camp decides to launch an intensive media campaign. Moments after all visitors have left, reports of police nearby set off alarms, which result in an unintentional dress rehearsal as campers test video equipment with which they plan to record the dreaded event.

Alerted by the vacationing Sanford that the camp is in crisis, local volunteer Dan "Spike" Alper shows up in the afternoon. Alper, who first met Templeton as a volunteer for Friends Outside (which helps inmates "handle minor administrative details") tells Nüz how "Larry told me that when he got out of jail, he wouldn't go back on streets and would stay clean and sober," before whisking Templeton off to visit the mayor.

Two hours later, Templeton returns, looking worn. "The mayor says he's told the police this camp is not the number one enforcement priority, and that helps. He wants us to lay off the phone calls and the news stories, but unless he does something about homelessness, what choice do we have?"

July 6, 7:15am: A ringing phone wakes Nüz. It's Templeton: "Some people are here with orders to pick up garbage, boots and jeans." When Nüz arrives, three temporary--and sometime homeless--workers are waiting at the levee end of Felker Street, surrounded by camp residents who warn them "not to take the job," which pays $12 an hour.

As it turns out, according to the Parks and Recreation worker who finally drives up, the crew aren't here for Camp Paradise but are headed south, instead. As Siobhan O'Neill of the city's Department of Public Works explains, "We clean up detritus in all green-belt areas. The major confusion was unfortunate. We're just helping out Parks and Recreation until they get enough rangers."

Camp residents estimate that it would have cost the city $250,000 to clean up the formerly trashed city-owned land where Camp Paradise now sits. "And that's not even including the cost of policing it to keep it free of drugs," says Ghost, adding that these days the city hires homeless people--which its own laws criminalize--because high rents means it can't attract "housed people" to live here.

Meanwhile Mayor Fitzmaurice says that while busting the camp is not an enforcement priority, he's not going to neglect the health and concerns of that area. "I don't like the notion that people in the camp are fearful, but undoubtedly they're in a very tenuous situation."

Nightfall: Sanford has been "rehired." Says Templeton, "A group of people are working at finding us a piece of land, but we need camping gear. And we're developing a pollution prevention plan to help reduce sanitation concerns, which haven't been helped by the city's refusal to let us have a Port-a-Potty in the area. But we're thankful to everyone for working with us and are willing to volunteer, because this community has helped us in our time of need."

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From the July 11-18, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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