Civil Unrest

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The majority of people who attended the city council meeting on Tuesday night were members of the public in support of the proposal. Many of them held signs to express their stance against the sleeping ban and criminalization of houseless people. Photo by Megan Schnabel
The majority of people who attended the city council meeting on Tuesday night were members of the public in support of the proposal. Many of them held signs to express their stance against the sleeping ban and criminalization of houseless people. Photo by Megan Schnabel

Despite an outpouring of support at the Santa Cruz City Council meeting for an amendment by councilmember Don Lane to remove a nearly 40-year-old sleeping ban that punishes houseless people with citations, the council shot down the proposal in a 5-2 vote on March 8.

“This change [won’t] be a solution [for houselessness],” said Santa Cruz Mayor Cynthia Mathews in her support of the sleeping ban at the meeting. “… We got a lot of very impassioned letters from people saying, ‘Don’t change it.’”

According to the 2015 County of Santa Cruz Homeless Point-in-Time Census, 1,964 people are houseless in Santa Cruz. Nearly 7 out of 10 of them are unsheltered, and around 4 out of 10 of unsheltered people sleep on the streets. Santa Cruz is among the top four U.S. cities with the highest houseless population per capita, beside New York City, San Francisco and Santa Clara, councilmember Richelle Noroyan said at the meeting.

“It’s not just about sleeping. It’s about people’s health,” said Noroyan, who also voted to uphold the ban at the meeting. “It’s about urinating and defecating and people finding needles in their front yards and people contacting me by the dozens saying they don’t even like to go in their backyards.”

Yet, a repeal of the sleeping ban wouldn’t affect laws against impeding pedestrians by sleeping, public defecation, excessive littering, illegal encampments and blocking residential or business doorways, Lane noted.

“There are people who have no other option but to sleep outside,” Lane said. “It seems important that we not have laws that penalize people for doing something they have no choice about.”

The Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) and park rangers issued a total of about 2,700 sleeping ban citations last year — but 96 percent of the citations went unpaid, said Chief of Police Kevin Vogel and interim Parks and Recreation Director Mauro Garcia at the meeting.

“We have several hundred people who are sleeping outdoors in the Santa Cruz area who have nowhere else to sleep,” Lane said. “It really challenges the community to keep taking this issue on in a more constructive way. What are we going to do about these people besides writing citations?”

Community members filled the council chambers — many held black and white signs reading “sleeping is a right,” “sleeping is not a crime” and “sleep deprivation is torture” — and gave over two hours of comments. Nearly every single speaker asked the council to repeal the sleeping ban, and some shouted in outrage when the council upheld the law.

Leah Levin, an education director at the Boys and Girls Club of Santa Cruz, agreed with the council’s vote — she said houseless people strike fear in the children she works with.

“We are now prisoners in our own club, we used to walk to the library,” said Levin as she held a poster with photos of abandoned needles and soiled clothing found at Santa Cruz’s Boys and Girls Club. “We used to go to Louden Nelson Park and play, we rarely ever go to Louden Nelson because my kids feel unsafe.”

Councilmember Don Lane admitted “there were a lot of emails in opposition” to his amendment that didn’t reflect the overwhelming amount of supporters who turned out at the city council meeting.

However, Lane warned opponents that the city’s failure to repeal the sleeping ban puts Santa Cruz’s funding from the Department of Urban Housing and Development (HUD) in jeopardy and opens the city to lawsuits.

“[The federal government] wants to give its funds to communities using the most positive approaches to addressing homelessness,” Lane said.

The City of Santa Cruz receives about $2 million annually from HUD for its homeless projects, but since last year, the federal department no longer looks fondly on cities that penalize houseless people and may withhold funding if Santa Cruz fails to decriminalize sleeping in public.

“[The sleeping ban] has always been [an] issue because it really is the progressive criminalization of people experiencing homelessness,” said Steve Pleich, a local attorney who works with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on the ban. “Certainly, homelessness itself has gotten more attention over the last three or four years because of the federal government’s interest in it.”

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is challenging a sleeping ban like Santa Cruz’s in Bell v. City of Boise in Idaho. The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division attorney Sharon Brett argued to the court that “sleeping is a life-sustaining activity” and that the “enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.” The Boise case remains underway, but if the sleeping ban is found unconstitutional in federal court, it will expose Santa Cruz to legal battles.

“We are working as hard as we can to get as much support as we can,” said Pleich, who also directs the Santa Cruz Homeless Persons Legal Assistance Project. “We are talking to everybody in Santa Cruz. We are talking to business leaders, labor leaders, educators, the Santa Cruz County Democratic Central Committee people, and we are trying to persuade all of those influential people in town that this is really sound public policy.”