Fighting for the Freedom to Sleep

Protesters march to City Hall to advocate for houseless rights

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Photo by Alonso Hernandez.
Photo by Alonso Hernandez

Although Santa Cruz County’s houseless population has decreased in the past four years, the county still ranks in the top ten among small regions for the largest number of houseless people. There are over 1,450 houseless individuals countywide, according to the 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report. Of these individuals, nearly 500 are chronically houseless.

Santa Cruz activists are calling for local government to ensure housing is available at a reasonable rate, to provide emergency shelter for the houseless and to repeal the Sleeping Ban. A group of about 100 gathered in front of the Santa Cruz Courthouse on May 9 for the Housing For All — No Penalty for Poverty March and Rally to bring awareness to the houseless crisis in Santa Cruz.

Students, community members and activists from several organizations such as Freedom Sleepers and Food Not Bombs marched from the courthouse to the post office. A fence surrounds the building to prevent the houseless people from setting up areas to sleep. The protesters then marched through downtown to Santa Cruz City Hall to voice their concerns in the City Council meeting.

Currently, Municipal Code 6.36.010, more commonly known as the Sleeping Ban, prohibits sleeping, setting up campsites in an area unintended for human occupancy and setting up bedding in vehicles or in public from 11p.m. to 8:30 a.m.

The Freedom Sleepers, alongside other activists, brought sleeping bags to sleep outside of City Hall after the demonstration. The group wanted to join the houseless in solidarity and committed the unsanctioned act of sleeping on public property.

“The threat of getting woken up and ticketed for sleeping affects a person’s well-being. I don’t think most of us can comprehend how hard that is,” said founder of Affordable Housing NOW! Linda Ellen Lemaster. “The criminalization process is what I consider deadly.”

In efforts to repeal the Sleeping Ban, members of the Freedom Sleepers sleep out on the steps of City Hall every Tuesday. One of these members is Keith McHenry, co-founder of Food Not Bombs and co-founder of the Freedom Sleepers. McHenry has been providing meals to houseless people for 37 years and throughout this time, he said, little has changed to help the houseless crisis.

“I think it is outrageous that it is illegal to sleep outside,” McHenry said. “[Sleeping] is a fundamental human right.”

At City Hall protesters circled and chanted, reinforcing their purpose before the City Council meeting.

Photo by Alonso Hernandez.
Photo by Alonso Hernandez.

The Homeless Coordinating Committee — comprised of Mayor Cynthia Chase, councilwoman Richelle Noroyan and former councilwoman Pamela Comstock — presented its final report on houselessness in Santa Cruz before the City Council on May 9. The committee spent six months researching issues the houseless face in Santa Cruz.

The report presented a list of 20 recommendations to the community and City Council that are intended to help the houseless in Santa Cruz. They include providing more accessible restrooms and showers, creating storage facilities for belongings and providing additional mental health outreach workers.

The City Council unanimously approved these recommendations. One recommendation invites the county to participate in a 2×2 committee, which would have two members from the county and two members of the city convene and formulate long-term regional houseless solutions. The committee plans to meet this summer.

Though the 20 recommendations were approved, some members of the council were reluctant to approve a timeline to put the recommendations into action until a budget is approved during the next City Council meeting on May 23.

“I am reluctant to add [a timeline] at this time,” said council member Martine Watkins during Tuesday’s City Council meeting. “That should be forthcoming based on what we learned.”

Organizers of the protest and march encourage the community to attend the next City Council meeting on May 23 in hopes of these recommendations being implemented with a budget.

“My kids and I used to be homeless. It was bad for my mental health for all people to treat me as if I was less than nothing,” Linda Ellen Lemaster said. “I got help from the county when I was in the hospital and on the streets. But now that system is not made for an ongoing emergency […] I feel like I owe it to my community. I want to put myself in the middle where the antagonisms are.”