An invisible line running through the big white teepee divides the Occupy protesters (foreground) from the transients.
The Occupy Santa Cruz encampment consists of 75 or so shelters—camouflage-print tents nestled next to tents festooned with Tibetan prayer flags—visible from the Water Street bridge. At the very center of it all, towering above them all, stands a 20-foot teepee fashioned from white tarpaulin and tree branches.
What is not visible from the bridge is an invisible line that runs through the teepee, a kind of Mason-Dixon line dividing the camp into two distinct groups. Sleeping in tents north of the teepee in closely packed rows are the Occupy Santa Cruz protestors who took up residence in the park nearly a month ago. To the south is a homeless community whose occupancy in the park long predates their current neighbors.
Occupy Santa Cruz originally chose San Lorenzo Park in part, as one participant who nominated the location put it, “in solidarity with our homeless brothers and sisters,” but tensions are growing between the movement and the homeless and transient community.
The issue that first divided the camp arose when it became clear that a youth soccer league was holding a permit to use the park for practices and games. The area delineated by the permit runs through the meadow and to the edge of the teepee.
In an effort to be neighborly, the Occupy Santa Cruz Camping committee asked protesters to move behind the teepee, but today 25 tents—belonging almost exclusively the homeless and transients—remain beyond the border. “Yeah, everyone from right there over,” says Shenoa, who has slept in San Lorenzo Park since before the occupation, “has been here forever. We live here.” She calls the area south of the teepee “the ghetto of the camp.”
Like the other homeless who have planted their tents in this area, Shenoa says she sleeps there for multiple reasons. “One, we’re not going to get in trouble—it’s illegal to sleep in Santa Cruz, so why would we want to go somewhere else and get arrested and get a ticket when we can go over here? And two, because this is a cause for us too, obviously, because we’re at the bottom of the 99 percent.”
She refers to herself in terms coined by the Occupy movement and camps alongside the demonstration, but Shenoa doesn’t attend general assemblies or believe in the cause. “I don’t really think occupying this space is going to do much,” she says. “They might change something but it’ll be very small, and it will only be to shut people up.”
There have been other incidents highlighting the divide between the Occupy movement and the transient community, including several disturbances in the camp and the continued use of drugs and alcohol by homeless individuals despite camp rules forbidding the use of either.
They have made some participants feel unsafe, says Casey Livingood, who has slept in the park every night save three since the movement began nearly a month ago. Livingood sits on Occupy Santa Cruz’s camping committee, which has discussed several options for addressing conflicts between demonstrators and the homeless.
“It’s hard—it’s public land. We don’t have a right to dictate what happens on it. We can’t, like, demand them to leave,” Livingood says. “It’s a difficult situation. All we can do is encourage them to participate.”
Among other solutions—such as forming an informal security detail to mediate conflicts in the camp—the committee has discussed enlisting police assistance. But that comes with some ideological baggage.
“We don’t want to be the same as the people we are against—when we call the police and we’re more privileged and tell them to take care of these less privileged people for our benefit,” Livingood says.
Although the committee ultimately decided against involving law enforcement, one person did approach the police asking for action. Livingood says the response was: “You guys are breaking the law, they are breaking the law—there is no difference between you.”
Since the occupation of San Lorenzo Park began, though, Shenoa says she has felt a difference in the police’s treatment. Before the protestors were there, police would drive through the park six or seven times a day hassling the homeless, Shenoa says, but not anymore.
“The police are not going to throw someone down with no reason right in front of people who are going to say shit about it,” she says. “We say shit about it all the time, the only difference is that we don’t have a place in society with a voice loud enough.”
In a way, then, the Occupy movement, as Livingood describes it, is already working. “We all have these different problems, but they are not being solved, they are actually getting worse,” he says. “We find a commonality in trying to find a solution that works for everyone, and in doing so we try to provide a forum that allows everyone’s voice to be heard and eventually when enough people—the whole 99 percent—get here we’ll have our collective voices.”
Come the first of December, he will find even more commonality with his San Lorenzo Park neighbors. Livingood is among the demonstrators who are electing to give up their leases in order to live in San Lorenzo Park full time.