Finding Hope in the Dark

100 sleep-outs later, Santa Cruz Sleeping Ban still in effect

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About 40 people slept out in front of City Hall on June 6, marking the 100th sleep-out by the Freedom Sleepers. Sleeping outdoors, on sidewalks, in cars and setting up camps are all deemed illegal by Santa Cruz. These houseless residents and activists are attempting to show the mistreatment of houseless people and the injustice of the Sleeping Ban. Photo by Alonso Hernandez
About 40 people slept out in front of City Hall on June 6, marking the 100th sleep-out by the Freedom Sleepers. Sleeping outdoors, on sidewalks, in cars and setting up camps are all deemed illegal by Santa Cruz. These houseless residents and activists are attempting to show the mistreatment of houseless people and the injustice of the Sleeping Ban. Photo by Alonso Hernandez

Hans Albertsen said he always finds himself back in Santa Cruz because it is the one place he can find peace. Even though the city has changed significantly since he lived here in the ’70s, he said as a chronically houseless person he is still able to find support in his fellow houseless residents who gather in front of City Hall every night.

Every other Tuesday, houseless residents and activists, including Food Not Bombs co-founders Keith McHenry and Abbi Samuels, gather as the Freedom Sleepers. This Tuesday, Albertsen and about 40 other people gathered to mark the 100th sleep-out.

The goal of the Freedom Sleepers is to highlight the inhumane treatment of the houseless forced to sleep outside every night and to fight the local ordinance that prohibits sleeping outdoors, according to its mission statement. Municipal Code 6.36.010, more commonly known as the Sleeping Ban, is the nearly 40-year-old ordinance that cites houseless people if they are found sleeping or setting up campsites and bedding in public or in vehicles from 11 p.m. to 8:30 a.m.

Last year, the City Council voted down the proposed removal of this ordinance, to the dismay of the Freedom Sleepers. On May 9, the City Council discussed houselessness but did not address the Sleeping Ban.

Albertsen said five weeks ago he stumbled upon the community of houseless residents who sleep in front of City Hall every night. Even though he was newer than most of the houseless people who sleep out there every night, he said he was able to find community and solidarity in the residents there. He said because people were willing to watch his stuff as he looked for a job, he was able to go out and find work to bring back resources to the community.

“I have a full-time job, I have sanction (sic) and I have the spirit that has never waned, it was scary for a little bit,” Albertsen said. “[…] And it’s time to help everybody else too.”

Albertsen, who now works as a construction framer, threw himself into the Freedom Sleeper movement. As a self-proclaimed health nut, he tries to bring back healthy food for houseless residents who are restricted to staying with their belongings. Albertsen said despite the community aspects, theft is a major problem. Houseless residents also have to stay with their possessions for fear police or rangers throw it away or cite them.

Photo by Alonso Hernandez
Photo by Alonso Hernandez

“I feel that we are in the fighting stage,” said Abbi Samuels, co-founder of both Food Not Bombs and the Freedom Sleepers. “[…] Even though [changing] the Sleeping Ban got voted down, at least it got some attention. More and more people are aware that it is illegal to sleep from the hours of 11 p.m. to 8:30 [a.m.]”

Samuels was arrested in April for resisting and obstructing a police officer by refusing to sign a ticket for blocking the sidewalk as she slept outside, unpermitted due to the Sleeping Ban. Samuels said she went through the court proceedings to pay the fine, but is more able than many of the other houseless residents who are cited.

“The tickets that are nonviolent tickets toward people on the streets, who can’t pay, [are] part of a vicious circle,” Samuels said. “You get a ticket and are expected to get off the street. It’s impossible.”

She said as long as the Sleeping Ban stays, they will continue to protest even if it means sleeping in front of city council members’ homes.

“We’ll leave if we see the Sleeping Ban turned around and the general criminalization of the homeless,” Samuels said. “There’s the anti-homeless architecture around town, the mosquito boxes, the lack of bathrooms, the fences [and] stay away orders.”

Adding more bathrooms and accessible showers were two of the 20 recommendations from the Homeless Coordinating Committee’s final report on houselessness, presented to City Council on May 9, that were unanimously approved.

This committee, comprised of Mayor Cynthia Chase, Councilwoman Richelle Noroyan and former Councilwoman Pamela Comstock, spent six months researching issues houseless residents face in Santa Cruz.

“The houseless crisis is tragic and challenging, but I do not believe insurmountable,” Councilwoman Martine Watkins said in an email. “[…] The root causes to many houseless individuals are poverty, mental illness and substance abuse.”

Albertsen said this is of course an issue affecting houseless residents but believes there are systemic challenges in the way for most people.

“The scary thing is, if they don’t start controlling rent […] there [are] going to be a hell of a lot more people in this scenario,” Albertsen said.

In Santa Cruz’s current political climate surrounding houselessness, the Freedom Sleepers find it more crucial than ever to humanize houseless individuals, shed light on their mistreatment and get more people involved.

“[Houseless people] are beautiful people,” said Albertsen, who plans to give Food Not Bombs $100 with his first paycheck. “And the crazy thing I have learned is, homeless will share with other homeless more than people who have stuff.”