The subject of homeless encampments and the presence of panhandlers is certainly not a new issue in Santa Cruz County.
But, recently the issue has become an oft-discussed one in Felton, as the town has seen an influx of homeless in the community’s public spaces in the last several years — particularly in the vicinities of the Covered Bridge Park and the downtown area.
Reports of aggressive panhandling, public drunkenness, drug use and sales have increased in downtown Felton, as have incidents of trash and human waste along the banks of the San Lorenzo River.
In one instance, someone urinated in the sandbox, causing the sandbox to be removed completely and permanently from the park because of the misuse.
In response, residents have begun to unite in efforts to address their safety and environmental concerns.
The subject of the homeless presence was a topic of debate at the Felton Town Plan meetings earlier this spring where many expressed the need for a coordinated effort between the community, local government and law enforcement agencies to get a handle on the situation.
From those meetings, one group in particular — now named Felton Reboot — arose as a community-based, action-oriented effort with goals to clean up litter in Felton’s public areas, report illegal activities, and create awareness on a larger scale of the need for proper facilities and care for the homeless.
“It’s a catalyst for a bigger conversation,” said Joni Martin, one of the two founders of Felton Reboot along with Kristi Fitzpatrick. “I don’t want people to perceive this as an anti-homeless effort.”
According to Fitzpatrick, the idea to begin the group came in the wake of the Town Plan meeting, where she observed much hand-wringing and finger-pointing on the online forums that arose after that meeting — but little action.
Now, several times a week, members of Felton Reboot can be found in and around the Covered Bridge Park area, picking up trash and recyclables — in some instances, strewn only yards away from appropriate receptacles.
“You could just be here all day,” Fitzpatrick said, wearing a pair of Kevlar gloves donated by Toyota of Santa Cruz as she pulled discarded toilet paper from the thorns of a stickerbush on Covered Bridge Road this week.
Those who join Felton Reboot are welcomed to the group’s private online forum — made private to ensure that those who are there are there to be serious about making a difference, and not to simply lay blame on the homeless.
“We don’t want to create an ‘us-versus-them’ (mentality),” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s not so much that we don’t want (homeless) here — you can’t just push them from one place to another.”
The group works closely with the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, serving as something of a downtown neighborhood watch in reporting instances of illegal activities such as campsites and drug incidents.
“The goal is to protect our environment and keep our public places safe and welcoming,” Martin said.
Sgt. John Habermehl of the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office said that in recent years, county residents’ tolerance of high numbers of homeless has become strained in the wake of several violent incidents in Santa Cruz.
“We’ve had some bad, bad situations (involving transients) that have occurred in the media in the last two years,” he said. “There are a lot of people who’ve said, ‘Enough is enough. I don’t want this going on in my community’ — people are becoming less and less tolerant of behavior.”
Habermehl, who commands the sheriff’s office substation in Felton, said that he applauded the Felton community’s efforts to seek a meaningful and positive solution to the homeless situation.
“I think the community as a whole recognizes that this isn’t a problem that can be solved by local law enforcement taking everybody to jail,” he said. “It takes community involvement.”
Habermehl also remarked on the community’s usage of social media as a means of community outreach.
“It allows people to join forces,” he said. “There are a significant number of folks in the community that are ready to enact some change.”
Habermehl said that he lends any and all support he can to the community’s efforts, and encouraged residents to report illegal activities.
5th District County Supervisor Bruce McPherson said that the homelessness issue in Santa Cruz County is exacerbated by the region’s well-known reputation nationwide amongst transients for a culture of permissiveness that leads to an influx from outside the area.
“We just can’t be the continual drawing card,” he said. “People just don’t feel as safe in their communities and lot of this has to do with drug use and the manufacture of drugs.”
McPherson said that there are no easy fixes to the problem of homelessness, on the local or state level.
“This is going to be a long-term process,” he said. “The best solution hasn’t been established — it’s going to take community involvement.”
To contact Felton Reboot, email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact McPherson’s office at 454-2200.
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