It’s noon on a warm fall day, and slanted light flickers through eucalyptus trees onto the tents that line the Felker Street homeless camp along the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz. The camp is squeezed between the river and the cemetery. Where my stepsister is buried. At the funeral, I held hands with my relatives, feeling the presence of her spirit beneath my feet. It never occurred to me that there might be people living nearby.
I’m walking with Brent Adams, a sturdy and sanguine middle-age man with a soul-patch. If I had a bad acid trip and Brent Adams showed up, my first thought would be, “Thank God.” Adams wears a pink construction worker vest and is on a first-name basis with everyone in the camp. “Coming through,” he says when passing camps, acknowledging that he’s walking through their space. Despite the fact that the encampment has hundreds of occupants, it is surprisingly well kempt. The dirt path is raked. Trash cans are used. Posted signs encourage tidiness. One camp has couches and a projector for watching movies. Another has a lovingly crafted wooden fence.
Due to COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders, this camp has existed for 10 months without disturbance. Cases of illness here are extremely low, according to Adams. Homeless camps typically get torn down by the city on a regular basis, due to overwhelming trash buildup, but Adams and his nonprofit, Footbridge Services Center, hope to use Felker Street camp as an exemplary model. Trash cans are strategically positioned throughout, and a garbage truck arrives to empty them weekly. We pass a woman rolling a cart of trash to the edge of the street for pickup. She’s hunched over, and as we walk by, her weary eyes lock with mine. Reflexively, I nod and look away.
A young man in his mid-20s approaches us. He has the boisterous blonde hair of a surfer and blue eyes, but his teeth are rotting and his face is pocked. He clearly knows Adams. He is covering his forearm with a T-shirt, then pulls it aside to reveal an abscess the size of a golf ball. He and Adams make eye contact, and Adams calmly tells him to get his infection looked at immediately. “Yeah, I’m going right now.” As we walk away, he proclaims, “People are trying to get me down, but I’m staying positive!” I get the feeling that he’s talking less to us than to himself.
“That young man grew up in Santa Cruz,” Adams tells me. “His dad and sister live here with him.” It never occurred to me that many people in this encampment might be locals. In fact, the most recent homeless census found that a full 74 percent of homeless people in Santa Cruz were prior residents.
It’s Sunday, which means shower day. The two showers resemble mobile homes, and every Sunday, Footbridge Services rolls them into the parking lot, facing away from nearby homes. No one wants a homeless camp in their neighborhood, so Adams and his team have made the space as self-contained as possible. Volunteers in pink vests sit at plastic tables, and hanging tarps block the growing line of homeless people from the view of the street. At the front of the line is a woman with grey hair and deep lines in her face and a young man wearing thick eyeliner and wet slicked-back hair. Everyone gets 20 minutes—enough time for a long, hot shower and a shave.
Adams has lived in Santa Cruz for 30 years. He worked in the restaurant business and enjoyed the wanderlust lifestyle, quitting a job, hitting some music festivals, then picking up another job. He was comfortable sleeping outside and would often camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains. “It was great,” he recalls, “until it wasn’t.” He describes laying in his tent during a storm one night, shivering wet and cold, feeling the grip of hypothermia creep up his extremities. Not having a place to store his stuff was also exhausting, and lugging his house on his back while trying not to appear homeless was close to impossible. The only time I see Adams’ cheerful eyes soften with sadness is when he recalls the friends who stopped returning his calls because he now wore a scarlet H on his forehead.
Adams had always wanted to be a documentary filmmaker, so he left Santa Cruz with a video camera and visited 40 cities, interviewing people living on the street. He gave out whiskey, weed, and blankets, and he began each interview with the same question—one that transformed his life.
“How are you doing?”
The documentary never came to fruition, but after conducting hundreds of interviews, he gained a deep understanding of what people living outside truly need. He distilled their answers into what he calls “two sets of big threes.”
Although many homeless shelters were handling the first set of big threes, far fewer were handling the second set—thus, the idea for Footbridge Services. Adams leads me into a room full of labeled 20-gallon plastic tubs that you could buy at Home Depot. Participants get up to three storage tubs each and can access their belongings every day of the year. “We’ve served almost 800 people over the past two years,” he says.
We walk into another room with socks and blankets on shelves. “People will use drugs, pass out, get hypothermia, and die. We’ve literally given out thousands of socks and blankets,” Adams says. Footbridge Services also offers laundry services on Wednesdays so participants can keep their clothes clean. We walk into a third room of power strips with cell phones and external chargers. “Most coffee shops don’t allow these people inside,” Adams tells me. “These charging stations allow them to stay connected.”
I ask Adams if he’s aware of any intriguing solutions that other cities have adopted. He tells me about a program in Eugene, Oregon called Cahoots. In most places, if the police department gets a 911 call and the victim has a mental-health issue, the department dispatches a firetruck, ambulance, and two cop cars. In Eugene, they patch the call through to Cahoots, which dispatches a van with a mental-health expert and a nurse. It’s a lot cheaper.
Today in the United States, over half a million people live on the streets, and Forbes reports that this winter 40 million Americans will face eviction. Drug addiction, mental illness, and inequality are messy issues, but like an infection, they only get worse when we ignore them. Adams isn’t pollyannaish. He knows that many of these people will never find jobs again. But he also understands the spectrum of desperation one can undergo while living on the streets. And he knows that a camp full of human shit, garbage, and moldy clothes is a hell of a lot different than one with raked paths, a homemade wooden fence, and a movie projector. When a fellow human is suffering, we often ignore them because we can’t bear to confront that suffering within ourselves. At first glance, Footbridge Services offers showers, laundry, storage, and charging stations. But when I step back, I realize that these amenities represent something else—dignity.
And when a fellow human walks with dignity, we see them.