by Jacob Pierce on Feb 26, 2013
Ken Collins, a Santa Cruz big-wave surfer turned controversial activist, talks to an officer while cleaning up at Harvey West.
Ken Collins has been talking nonstop for fifteen minutes. His voice is getting hoarse, and the cold he fought off a day earlier sounds like it’s coming back. “This is a small surf city with big city problems. It should never have gotten this bad,” he says, sitting at a picnic table about thirty yards from the Harvey West Park woods where he played hide-and-seek as a kid. These days, Collins wouldn’t let his children on the playground.
Collins has with him an empty plastic milk carton of cigarette butts and used syringes he found on the ground. When he goes to a city council meeting, he brings the same carton with him, and shakes it like a rattle in between public commenters.
Collins, better known as “Skindog” to the extreme sports world, is one of the world’s premiere big-wave surfers. He competed in the Mavericks Surf Competition last month—and from the looks of it, probably hasn’t smiled since. Collins took up this local cause after a long Tuesday walk in November when he and about 20 others found a bunch of trash on the railroad tracks and stormed into the city council chambers to give the politicians an earful.
Collins isn’t the only person angry about used needles and homeless addicts around Pogonip City Park, the San Lorenzo River and Cowell Beach, which ranked as the worst beach in California last year. But he might be the most controversial.
“Santa Cruz is a supermodel with AIDS,” he says. “It’s this beautiful place that’s completely diseased.”
Collins calls the Homeless Services Center a “crack house.” (HSC director Monica Martinez says the shelters have a no-drug policy.) He says the city manager should be fired for failing to address Santa Cruz’s public safety, and accuses city councilmembers of not doing their jobs, even though two of them began their first terms less than two months ago. Collins is a little short on patience.
Volunteers Craig Lambert and Gary Young are working nearby in the Harvey West’s baseball field to build a batting cage. Last season, the two men, both of them fathers, showed up early before little league games to clean trash off the field. They say someone has to do what Collins is doing.
“When I was a kid,” Young says, “we’d play outside until we got hungry and come home for dinner. You can’t let your kids play out until dark anymore. You have to practically drive them everywhere.”
It’s tough to deny that Collins, regardless of what anyone thinks of what he spouts, embodies the frustration that erupted after fellow surfer Dylan Greiner made a YouTube video in November about three tons of trash in the caves near Cowell Beach.
Collins says he’s not just harping on problems, but also has solutions. He suggests the city build public restrooms with surveillance cameras out front, while also hiring a ten-member group to pick up trash and a four-member team of police officers with all-terrain vehicles and horses to “harass” homeless people and chase drug dealers out of town. The city is looking at healthy reserves for the first time in years, and Santa Cruz might hire new cops, but plans like Collins’ would be no small expense for a city.
“There are good homeless people,” Collins says. “I have compassion for the homeless people that are down on their luck and need help, and they’re seeking help. But there are junkies who use the homeless population to hide themselves and camouflage themselves to do their dirty seedy work.”
There's no evidence that Santa Cruz's recent high-profile crimes—two shootings, a grocery-store robbery, and a rape at UCSC—were committed by homeless people. But Santa Cruz Police Captain Steve Clark says a "playful attitude" about drug use has plagued Santa Cruz for years, and leads to more crime.
At a recent city council meeting, councilmember Don Lane cautioned against dividing homeless people into different camps.
“Those are all people who are homeless, and they may have different needs, and the community may want to deal with them differently, but we do need to deal with them,” Lane said at the Feb. 12 meeting. “The fact that someone’s homeless and a drug addict does not make them a non-human being in our community. And we need to deal with those folks in a constructive way, too.”
"Skindog" is not backing down. "My approach has been very aggressive. I’m very aggressive,” he says. “I don’t pussyfoot around this. I don’t tread lightly trying to be polite, because that’s not going to work."