By day, Main Beach is shaded by the tents and umbrellas of beachgoers. By night, tents protect houseless residents from rain, wind and moonlight rather than the sun. The most important difference — camping on the beach at night could get you arrested.
At a Sept. 10 City Council meeting, city officials voted 6-1 in favor of a curfew for Main Beach, prohibiting the use of the sandy portion of the beach from midnight to an hour before sunrise.
An increasing number of tents cropping up on Main Beach since the closure of the Ross Camp prompted the curfew. Most people don’t want to spend the night on a beach, but some have no choice. Criminalizing overnight camping means criminalizing people who have nowhere else to go.
By instituting an overnight curfew on the most accessible beach in Santa Cruz, the city has once again decided to police where houseless residents can sleep without providing an immediate alternative. Beginning with the closure of the Ross Camp, it seems as though the city finds it easier to herd the houseless population around than to seek sustainable solutions.
Closing down camps and banning beach camping doesn’t help anyone find shelter. These lazy pseudo-solutions just make the problem less visible. The curfew doesn’t serve the public — it’s the city bowing to the “out of sight, out of mind” attitude of its more privileged residents.
By preventing houseless citizens from accessing Main Beach at night, the city perpetuates a brand of classism that undergirds American capitalism. It screams “access to human rights requires access to capital.” Owning property or having a savings account shouldn’t be a prerequisite for using public spaces.
As a result of the curfew, people who have a house to return to are free to use the beach, but anyone lacking the necessary assets will be turned around. This restriction is undemocratic and elitist. Sunset doesn’t mean anything for people who have a place to go, but for others the day’s end brings uncertainty and even fear.
Driving home the message that money equals access, the Santa Cruz “Boardwalk Fall Campout,” a fundraiser benefiting the American Cancer Society, took place on Main Beach from Sept. 20-21. Participants camped in tents — not unlike those belonging to the city’s houseless residents — on the boardwalk for a night, then returned to their homes the next day.
It’s critical to remember that policies aren’t neutral. Laws written in the interest of a few at the expense of many should be challenged and overturned.
But sleeping bans aren’t just bad politics, they’re unconstitutional, and the city knows that. In 2018, federal judges of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled laws prohibiting sleeping or camping in public to be cruel and unusual punishment, which violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Sleeping bans were cruel and unusual in 2018 and they’re cruel and unusual now.
Public spaces exist to serve communities and should remain accessible to everyone, regardless of the time of day.
When the city prevents houseless people from sleeping in tents they’ve pitched on the beach, it forces them to find refuge in a city designed to make sleep as uncomfortable as possible. Store owners throw ice on their patios, benches are built with dividers and spikes are added to flat surfaces, all to keep people from inhabiting them.
City officials should lift the curfew and ensure no one is ticketed for sleeping. Beaches are not private property and cannot be treated as such.