[UPDATE, Jan. 13: Judge Susan van Keulen extended a temporary restraining order against the City of Santa Cruz, keeping houseless encampments at San Lorenzo Park open through Jan. 20 as residents await the final ruling. The motion was announced on Jan. 12, a day before the current restraining order expires.
The most recent extension comes as the City of Santa Cruz requested additional time to gather evidence in support of their case that the encampment is a safety hazard and unsustainable.]
Judge Susan van Keulen extended a temporary restraining order halting the city’s eviction of houseless residents in San Lorenzo Park. Issued Jan. 6 and set to expire on the 13th, the restraining order is set until van Keulen rules whether or not an injunction, filed by the Santa Cruz Homeless Union against the city, will be granted through the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This outcome is the culmination of three weeks of organizing, protesting, and legal action by houseless park residents and community members in response to an executive order issued Dec. 17 by City Manager Martin Bernal.
The order called on city officials to clear the park of the nearly 150 houseless individuals who live there over three phases from Dec. 21 to Jan. 6.
Language from the first notice described the area to be swept in phase one as being from the Chinatown Bridge “to the grass area surrounding the lawn bowling green,” an ambiguous designation and different from the area described by the city website. Notices were only printed in English, meaning that non-English speaking residents were not duly informed of the city’s action plan.
“I got evicted out of here on the 24, right before Christmas,” said Anthony Wayne Reeves, a San Lorenzo Park Resident who has since moved his tent back into the area that had been cleared in phase one. “I had to move two couches and two and a half shopping carts full of stuff by myself.”
In response to the first phase of evictions, Dec. 21 through 28, the houseless community and allied advocates formed an organization called “Stop the Sweep,” which began publicly posting on Instagram Dec. 23.
“We just wanted to help out the people here, as much as possible,” said Tyler*, a volunteer for Stop the Sweep. “We decided that the best way to do that was to attempt to stop the sweep, and, if unsuccessful, to help people move. The ideal situation, I think, would be for this park to remain a camp and for police to not sweep it, and for people to be able to stay and live here permanently.”
The protests were growing in tension before the first restraining order was granted on Dec. 30. In the three days leading up to the restraining order, activists physically prevented city police officers from completing the second and third phases of their sweep. On Dec. 28, protesters created a human wall to prevent police from entering the park. However, once the restraining order was granted, police presence diminished.
For Judge van Keulen to rule in favor of the preliminary injunction, the possibility of irreparable harm to the San Lorenzo houseless community in its absence must be demonstrated.
Key to this legal argument is understanding what kinds of harm are involved with removing the houseless from the park. Stop the Sweep activists and park residents highlighted the importance of the camp remaining at San Lorenzo. The park is a hub for resources from Food Not Bombs, the Santa Cruz People’s Kitchen, mutual aid distributions, and clean needles and safe injecting materials from county resources and the Harm Reduction Coalition.
The CDC guidelines regarding COVID-19 were also an issue in the court hearings.
“It’s against the CDC guidelines for not moving houseless people in the middle of a pandemic,” said a park resident Prism*. “The health director of Santa Cruz County, Gail Newel, disagreed with this decision. She said if she’d been consulted, she would have gone against it.”
The Homeless Union argued this in court, claiming that the guidelines in light of the pandemic recommended encampments be allowed to remain where they are since houseless individuals forced to move could pose a public health risk by increasing the spread of COVID-19 to the greater community.
Lost in the legalese and political discussion is the story of this lost houseless community.
“There’s a lack of empathy to the citizens,” said Thomas*, another park resident. “We are citizens, I’m a human being, I live here… I am fighting, and I am scraping, and I’m trying everything I know how to do, and no one will help me. And I’m left to depend on those of us who are doing the same thing.”
Some individuals present at the protests were not current members of the San Lorenzo encampment.
“I could call anyone from this group and they would come and help me,” said Blue, who had previously been a resident of the Golflands (the city managed camp at DeLaveaga). Blue explained that their ties to this community made coming out to the protest feel incredibly important.
Park resident Thomas expressed his frustration with the apathy demonstrated by the evictions.
“This is disgusting,” Thomas said. “It’s disgusting that there’s no place for us made, you know, life happens. No one’s reflecting our humanity, and nobody’s making space for our damage.”
*Source requested to omit their last name to protect their privacy.