A screenshot showing the flooding of  tents in an encampment along the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz, on Monday, Dec. 13.
A freelance photojournalist took photographs and video footage on Monday of a homeless encampment inundated with water near downtown Santa Cruz as a moisture-packed atmospheric river dumped rain over Northern and Central California.
Santa Cruz resident Alekz Londos said he flew a drone over the large neighborhood of tents in the Benchlands area of San Lorenzo Park to raise awareness around the need for more affordable housing in the city.
“It’s frustrating when people are lying on the ground in the rain. They’re in wheelchairs in the rain. Why has our society allowed this?” Londos said of the flooding that drenched people’s tents and belongings. “There’s no affordable housing, it’s so limited.”
Santa Cruz often lands on lists of most expensive places to live in the United States, and according to Zillow, the average home value is $1.3 million
The Benchlands encampment was sanctioned through a federal injunction in early 2021 and has continued to offer a place for people to camp as Santa Cruz works on developing other temporary sheltering operations, the city said. 
The city said in a statement that it sent staff from several departments to the Benchlands encampment and a site at the nearby cemetery on Friday and Sunday to alert campers about the storm and “strongly encourage them to seek higher ground … out of harm’s way.”
The message to leave the area may not have gotten to everyone. On his Monday visit to the encampment, Londos captured Facebook live footage and interviewed a man living in a tent who said he wasn’t warned. 
After receiving news of the shifting weather and flood forecast on Monday, the city said it sent an ad hoc emergency response team to the site that helped support and evacuate people. Londos said he saw some of the workers assisting on Monday. 
The city’s Public Works Department opened a temporary shelter on Monday in a parking garage for impacted individuals until the storm subsides. Santa Cruz County supplied 100 sleeping bags and pads, cases of water and 500 ready-to-eat meals.
“The sheltering operation at the River Street garage will continue until the storm subsides,” the city said. “If needed, a temporary, alternate location to the Benchlands will be utilized until the Benchlands is dry enough for the campers to return.”
A screenshot showing the flooding of  tents in an encampment along the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz, on Monday, Dec. 13.
Like many places in California, Santa Cruz is home to a population of people without housing. A census taken in 2019 by the nonprofit Housing Matters found 2,167 homeless people living in Santa Cruz County. The count was conducted on a single day and likely didn’t capture the entire population. Shelter space to accommodate everyone without housing is lacking, and countywide, there are 617 beds available through shelters, transitional housing as well as COVID Project Roomkey hotels supported by funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Of those beds, 375 are in the city of Santa Cruz.
“The city is standing up some temporary transitional camps to try to meet the need, given that there are far more unhoused individuals than shelter beds available,” the city said in a statement. “The city currently has one of the highest per capita rates of homelessness in the state.”
Phil Kramer, CEO of Housing Matters, which helps people find permanent housing in Santa Cruz County, said the region has made strides and his organization housed 300 people last year — but it’s not enough.
“We’re not keeping up with the need,” Kramer said. “More people are becoming unhoused than we are able to house in any given time. It’s dismaying for the community. It doesn’t feel like we’re housing more people to the community … when you’re visiting the Benchlands where people are camping and tragically flooded out of their sleeping situation.”
A screenshot showing the flooding of tents in an encampment along the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz, on Monday, Dec. 13.
Londos has lived in Santa Cruz for 32 years and said he has seen the unhoused population grow. To help individuals in need of shelter, he started building “micro tiny homes.” 
“I’ve seen the situation get worse over the years and I see why,” he said. “It’s a big problem. I think it has to do with the divide between the rich and the poor, trickle-down economics don’t work. There are drug addiction problems. We don’t have enough mental health services.”
Amy Graff is the news editor for SFGATE. She was born and raised in the Bay Area and got her start in news at the Daily Californian newspaper at UC Berkeley where she majored in English literature. She has been with SFGATE for more than 10 years. You can email her at agraff@sfgate.com.