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The downtown is busy and active and safe to walk around in until midnight. The town does have a large number of street people or homeless people because the city leaders are compassionate and tolerant and the weather is so good. These homeless folks sometimes yell at others, but for the most part they are harmless. Most crime in Santa Cruz is centered on the congested beach area. Too much beer and too many people crowding the boardwalk and beach are in the summer leads to hassles and brawls.
Santa Cruz does have two rough areas: Beach Flats and Lower Ocean St. Unfortunately, there are a number of hotels clustered here because of the city zoning for tourist accommodations and the proximity to the Boardwalk. The first area to avoid (Beach Flats) is a triangle directly across from the Boardwalk bounded by Beach, Third, and Cliff Streets. However, the city of Santa Cruz has made a concentrated effort to clean up Beach Flats. There is a strong police prescence in the summertime, virtually free of the shady activities such as brawling/prostitution as mentioned in a previous post.the Boardwalk and surrounding areas are very family friendly. Look up your hotel on a Google map. If it's in this triangle, you might want to reconsider. The other rough patch is Lower Ocean. This is a rectangle bounded by Broadway, Ocean, Riverside and San Lorenzo. You probably want to avoid lodging in this area.
Travelers generally need not worry about becoming victim of crime during their vacation in Santa Cruz. Those who want to be prepared, though, should know that car theft is the most common crime problem affecting travelers in the area. Travelers should always park in well-lit areas and should be sure to have theft insurance on their vehicles, whether they are driving personal vehicles or rental cars in the area. Should car theft occur, travelers should notify the local authorities (by dialing 911) and they should also notify the lot owner where the theft occurred. Folks are encouraged to stay on the well lit sidewalks at night versus the bike trails as there is still a homeless popuation that congreates on or near the bike trails. Santa Cruz is a generally safe place to visit.