Houseless Advocates Challenge Ordinance

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Illustration by Heather Rose

Beginning Dec. 9, anyone who receives a citation or is arrested in a city park, beach or any other location maintained by the City of Santa Cruz’s Parks and Recreation department will be subject to a misdemeanor charge upon returning to the same location.

Critics against the ordinance argue it disproportionately targets members of Santa Cruz’s houseless community, noting many people who are houseless spend much of their time in parks.

Proposed by the City of Santa Cruz’s Parks and Recreation department, ordinance 2014-12, known as the “Stay Away” ordinance, will require people to “stay away” from public recreation facilities where they received a citation or were arrested, with the length of time depending on the severity of the offense.

The “Stay Away” ordinance is not new. Since July 2013, park rangers have been able to expel patrons from city recreational facilities for up to 24 hours for low-level infractions. As the rule stands, anyone who returns to the property where he or she was arrested or received a citation will be charged with a misdemeanor, according to section 13.08.100 of the Santa Cruz Municipal Code.

However, the new amendment to the ordinance carries a more severe sentence, said Keith Sterling, the community relations manager for the City of Santa Cruz.

“If you were caught for drugs, alcohol or some other violation, there would be the official fine or ticket, and part of it would require them to stay away from the park,” Sterling said. “The ordinance would be revisited again to possibly increase the penalties. For example, if I committed a crime, there would be a longer amount of time I would need to stay away from the park.”

The severity of the “stay away” order increases with each citation, beginning with 24 hours and lengthening to week, month, six-month and yearlong penalties.

Part of the controversy behind the ordinance stems from the fact that the accused would not go to court before receiving this sentence and several critics in the community have been most vocal about whom the law will target.

Councilmember Micah Posner and Vice Mayor Don Lane were the only two councilmembers who voted against the amendment in a meeting in October. Posner wrote a letter to the public regarding the ordinance, in which he said most repeat offenders who receive tickets in parks are members of Santa Cruz’s houseless community, and they are usually cited for sleeping.

“One-third to two-thirds of the tickets are being given [out] for the victimless crime of sleeping,” Posner wrote. “While one can empathize with the desire to not have our parks turn into unplanned campgrounds, where exactly do we expect people who cannot afford rent to go?”

Although not all citations issued in parks are for sleeping, Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom (HUFF) founder Robert Norse said a disproportionate number of houseless people receive these citations compared to other groups, and most citations are for nonviolent crimes.

“Citations have generally been against the homeless,” Norse said. “The three main categories of infraction citations have been sleeping, being in an area after dark, and smoking. At least two of these are life-sustaining behaviors.”

Members of HUFF compiled data on the kinds of infractions issued to members of the houseless community to present to City Council for its November meeting. By going through Parks and Recreation citations from Jan. 2013 to Oct. 2014, HUFF found 70 percent of citations went to houseless people, and only 17 percent of those citations were for alcohol violations.

Norse said the law is ambiguous in its criteria of what infractions warrant a “stay away” order. Ultimately, it is an officer’s individual decision to issue an order along with a citation.

“It’s discretionary,” Norse said. “If a police officer or park ranger wants to give you a ‘stay away’ order, they can. If they don’t, they can choose not to. There’s no criteria in the ‘Stay Away’ ordinance. It’s all up to the opinion of the police officers, which, of course, is the definition of a police state.”

Kathleen Keesler, who organized a protest against the ordinance at a City Council meeting in November, said the ordinance offers no real solution to the issue of houseless people sleeping in parks, and it instead leads to people being harassed for having no place to stay. She said she understood how the City Council might think the ordinance would be effective, but said it will cause more harm than good.

“I can see how [some councilmembers] thought it was going to teach [houseless people] to follow the rules,” Keesler said, “but these people have nowhere to go, they have no money and police are confiscating their IDs. The only place they can go is to another area in these zones where Parks and Recreation do not want them.”

The ordinance will mask the issue of houselessness, Keesler said, not solve it.

“This ordinance — staying away for a week, a month, six months, a year — is not fixing the problem,” Keesler said. “It’s sweeping it away.”