By James Clark

As winter approaches and the Santa Cruz homeless shelter at the armory opens, many are discussing the Santa Cruz sleeping ban.

Santa Cruz’s sleeping ban, which was passed in 1977, began as an attempt to control waste left by summer tourists who slept on the beaches or camped in local parks, but over time it has become something else.

According to attorney Kate Wells and members of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the law is “a human rights violation which criminalizes homelessness.” A debate on the sleeping ban aired on a local TV program, “Voices from the Village,” on Nov. 11.

The debate featured Mayor Ryan Coonerty, arguing against civil rights attorney Kate Wells and Don Zimmerman from the local chapter of the ACLU. Vice Mayor Cynthia Mathews spoke on the need for the debate, saying, “it’s a continuous issue here in Santa Cruz,” and that it needed to be discussed.

The camping ban, commonly called the sleeping ban, prohibits sleeping on public property between the hours of 11 p.m. and 8:30 a.m. It is also against the law to set up cooking equipment, or to cover oneself at night with the intention of sleeping.

A key question in the debate was whether or not the city of Santa Cruz was doing enough for the homeless population in the way of shelters and other support programs and services.

“In terms of overnight shelters, we have 252 beds,” Coonerty said. “We have long-term shelters for families, mainly the Rebele Family Shelter, and we have low-income transitional housing.” Coonerty added that the homeless population is estimated to be around 1,500, leaving over a thousand homeless people without temporary housing.

When the shelters are full the citations are waived, Coonerty said. Yet some are still concerned about the state of homelessness and the lack of temporary housing.

Leslie Fontillas, a Santa Cruz local, shared her thoughts. “If sleeping on the street is illegal then [the city] should pursue getting more shelters or more community support programs.”

Coonerty commented on the fact that though counties typically cover the costs of shelters and social workers, the city of Santa Cruz spends “millions of dollars during the year” and also has its own social workers.

The city has a downtown social worker, and Santa Cruz pays half of this salary, while the county covers the other half, Coonerty said. “We also have a homeless service officer who puts [the homeless] in contact with shelters, and other counseling services.”

Though the shelters can only service 252 people out of 1,500, between 30 and 60 tickets are issued on average each month.

“Personally, I think the choices people make are not that much affected by the sleeping ban,” said Don Lane, associate director for administration at the Homeless Services Shelter. “Most know how to avoid the sleeping ban. A lot of people are camping and sleeping, and out of those only one or two are getting a citation. Most people who are out there know what to do to avoid getting a citation.”

Coonerty summarized the purpose of the ban. “It was meant to set a standard,” he said. “It’s mostly a health and safety issue, you can’t just have people sleeping in parks and neighborhoods.”