*Source declined to give their last name.

The Santa Cruz City Council voted 5-2 to approve a controversial “temporary outdoor living ordinance” (TOLO) on March 10 that outlines restrictions on the time, place, and manner where houseless people can camp in the City of Santa Cruz. 

“TOLO” was cause for a protest outside city hall in the hours before the council vote. Members of the Santa Cruz Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), joined by Food Not Bombs volunteers, the Santa Cruz Homeless Union members, and various other community members, spoke about how TOLO would harm houseless people should it pass.

Demonstrators hold a sign that reads, “The City Lied, People Died. REST IN POWER Deseire Quintero. Quintero was an activist and houseless resident of Santa Cruz who died in October 2019 while camping in the Pogonip. Photo by Thomas Sawano.

Before becoming law, however, the council must vote during its next two meetings on a slew of other amendments proposed to the ordinance at the March 9 meeting, a process the council voted 6-1 to move forward on. This vote follows a first reading of the ordinance that took place two weeks ago, which itself saw a bevy of last-hour amendments regarding the specifics of where and how outdoor camping could take place in the city. 

“I’m hoping that with our discussion tonight, we can make some significant amendments that can address the concerns and challenges,” said council member Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson. “But sitting here and doing nothing is not compassionate for anyone.”

The new amendments, which include closing previously unbanned “open spaces” like the Pogonip and Delaveaga Park, opening camping on some commercial and industrial thoroughfares, and requiring houseless people to decamp their belongings an hour after sunrise instead of 7 a.m., will go through a separate two-vote approval process, the first of which to take place April 13. 

The amendments will then only become law in late May, or 30 days after a second vote — though the ordinance itself would not be enforceable until after the county moves to COVID-19 yellow tier and the city manager establishes storage and safe sleeping programs outlined by the ordinance.

City Hall Rally

In a scene reminiscent of pre-COVID-19 City Council meetings, about 120 Santa Cruz residents gathered outside City Hall on Tuesday evening to protest the TOLO. Organized by the Santa Cruz DSA, in collaboration with the Santa Cruz Homeless Union and Food Not Bombs, the demonstration saw speakers from a wide cross section of organizations and backgrounds voice serious concern and dissatisfaction with the City Council’s actions. 

“They pass [an] ordinance that doesn’t allow anywhere for people to be,” said Alica Kuhl, president of the Santa Cruz Homeless Union. “The city sees it as a free-for-all, and we see it as a constant fight for a safe place to be as is.”

“Do you not see the problem literally outside of your window? When you’re driving in your Toyota Tacoma to go to the taqueria, do you not see the mass amount of homeless people on the side of the road? Are you blind? There’s more things in this community than the goddamn boardwalk.”

Save*, a formerly houseless Santa Cruz resident

The fight for Kuhl and the Homeless Union has been grueling since December of 2020 when they had to take the City to court over their decision to sweep encampments in the San Lorenzo Park, but it has also meant that networks of organizations are ready for both collaboration and a response.

It was no surprise to see a Food Not Bombs van among the first to turn up at the rally site, the Santa Cruz People’s Kitchen with a table of burritos primed for handing out, and the mutual aid group “Sanitation for the People” circulating flyers — all with the intent of coalition building and showing support for the houseless.

Alicia Kuhl, president of the Santa Cruz Homeless Union, speaks to a crowd of about 120 about how the ordinance would harm houseless people if it passes. Photo by Thomas Sawano.

Santiago*, a member of the Santa Cruz Coalition to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal — a journalist and political activist currently on death row — spoke on the intersectional nature of the houseless struggle, and the importance of solidarity across different movements.

“Abolition relates to houselessness issues very directly,” he said. “A lot of formerly houseless people are in prison, and a lot of formerly imprisoned people are houseless as a part of the same system that keeps people in the cycle of poverty and in the cycle of going back to prison.” 

Santiago was not alone in highlighting many of the non-trivial or immediately obvious aspects of houseless issues. Nic Laflin, a volunteer with the Santa Cruz DSA and various other local mutual aid organizations, listed a variety of reasons why the ordinance would harm, in particular, houseless survivors of domestic violence.

“The lack of stability from constantly removing tents,” Laflin said, “being unable to accrue necessary survival supplies, and being replaced by always having to move to avoid entrenchment, as chief Mills calls it, will harm survivors of DV [domestic violence].”

“Do you not see the problem literally outside of your window,” said Save, a formerly houseless Santa Cruz resident. “When you’re driving in your Toyota Tacoma to go to the taqueria, do you not see the mass amount of homeless people on the side of the road? Are you blind? There’s more things in this community than the goddamn boardwalk.”

Late Hour Amendments

A zoning map of the city of Santa Cruz. Areas designated community commercial, (CC) professional administration, (PA) thoroughfare commercial, (CT) and general industrial (GI) will be open to camping. Image courtesy of the City of Santa Cruz.

Differing from the draft ordinance presented to the City Council two weeks ago, the amendments to be passed by City Council in the coming weeks would ban camping in the four city open spaces of Arana Gulch, Moore Creek Preserve, Delaveaga Park, and the Pogonip. This came at the behest of city staff and community members who said allowing camping in the city’s open spaces might result in damage to the lush areas’ foliage, and open the city up to environmental litigation. 

Camping would be newly permitted along the commercially zoned thoroughfares of Mission Street, Soquel Avenue, Water Street, and Ocean Street, along with various industrial areas around Harvey West, Seabright, and southwest Santa Cruz.  

The amendments also include changing the times when houseless people can camp in areas allowed by the ordinance, now from an hour before sunset to an hour after sunrise. 

As they did before, Council members Sandy Brown and Justin Cummings voted against the ordinance on the grounds that the Council did not solicit enough public comment on it as passed. 

“I’m not comfortable supporting the adoption of what’s before us as a second reading,” Cummings said. “I also feel that if we’re not going to do anything before we make the amendments, it makes sense that we would just wait to take that action.” 

However, both Brown and Cummings supported lines in the ordinance that called for the city manager to establish a storage and safe sleeping program with 150 spots. New to the ordinance was an amendment requiring the city manager to establish a new managed houseless encampment at 1220 River Street, a city-owned lot that sits about two blocks north of the Tannery Arts Center. 

The decision came on the same day as a Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors meeting that heard three agenda items regarding countywide houseless policies, including the first six-month increment of a three-year plan to cut houselessness in Santa Cruz County by 25 percent. Combined with the new programs established by the city ordinance, these policies constitute what local officials call a “continuum of care” for the houseless.

But to many, these policies have not put the issue of houselessness to rest.

“This is a societal problem,” said Santa Cruz Homeless Union president Alicia Kuhl. “It’s really unfair and really fucked up for people that live in houses to sit in City Council and decide what happens to their victims.”