Posters and a barricade erected to stop police from clearing out San Lorenzo Park on Dec. 28, 2020.
Judge Susan van Keulen granted an injunction Wednesday that blocks the city from clearing out the San Lorenzo Park homeless encampment (above) during the COVID-19 crisis.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Judge rules city can’t clear San Lorenzo Park homeless encampment amid COVID-19 concerns

The city of Santa Cruz cannot clear a homeless encampment at San Lorenzo Park because COVID-19 continues to be prevalent and dispersing inhabitants would increase health risks, a judge ruled Wednesday after weeks of legal back-and-forth.

Magistrate Judge Susan van Keulen granted a temporary injunction to block the city’s attempt to close the park, which would have displaced dozens of people living there since last year. Homeless advocates say the ruling sets an important legal precedent that could be used as a basis for similar cases around the country.

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The city’s Dec. 17 executive order, issued by City Manager Martín Bernal, described the situation at the park as unsafe and untenable — a greater danger to the community than if the homeless campers were dispersed. Bernal said the encampment was home to drug use, crime, fire safety issues, and destruction of trees and grass, among other problems.

The city’s order went against guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which strongly advise against breaking up homeless encampments during the pandemic. In a Jan. 13 court hearing, city attorney Cassie Bronson said the CDC guidelines were well-intentioned but “not supported by any data we’re aware of.”

Van Keulen didn’t rule out a closure of the park at some point; attorneys representing the city and the park’s inhabitants are asked to file status reports — the first is due March 9 — as the pandemic eases, according to the decision. Because of the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic’s trajectory, the judge will review the case again at a hearing on March 16 and determine what changes, if any, are needed.

“As vaccines roll out and the pandemic eases, dispersal of homeless persons from the encampments may no longer put them at greater risk for COVID-19, and re-evaluation of the injunction will be necessary,” van Keulen ordered.

The judge disagreed with the city’s reasoning for closing the park, citing the CDC guidelines that “are clear and specific: if there is no alternative housing available, leave the encampments to remain where they are because clearing encampments may increase the potential for infectious disease spread,” Wednesday’s decision said.

“I am disappointed in today’s court order as I strongly believe that a temporary park closure is urgently needed to address major concerns arising from encampments in San Lorenzo Park,” Bernal said in a statement after the ruling. “With that said, the city will keep a watchful eye on the park and continue to focus on doing what it can, within the confines of the court’s injunction, to address any hazardous or unlawful conditions that exist in the park. We also look forward to meeting again with Judge Van Keulen in March, and we hope, at that point, that vaccine availability may give the court reason to lift or modify the injunction.”

County Health Officer Gail Newel and her public health staff were not consulted before the city crafted plans to close the park. “If we had been, we would have advised against this,” Newel wrote in an electronic message that Lookout revealed last month. The city has argued that Bernal, as the city’s de facto emergency manager during the pandemic, has the authority to make calls without consulting public health officials.

The city council also did not need to approve the executive order before it went into effect, because of flexibility built into “state of emergency” situations.

After the first round of sweeps and days of protest at the park, members of the local homeless persons union filed the lawsuit in federal court, challenging the legality of closing the park during a public health crisis. Attorney Anthony Prince argued that sweeping the encampment put people living there in harm’s way, isolated them from life-saving resources such as food and hygiene stations, and infringed upon their constitutional rights.

In her decision Wednesday, van Keulen acknowledged the work the city had done to mitigate problems at the park and the fiscal constraints it was facing as a result of the economic recession. But she ultimately agreed that the city’s decision to clear out campers as the country is in the depths of the COVID-19 crisis, and while the county’s 10 homeless shelters are at capacity, “would leave the homeless persons camping in those locales more vulnerable to COVID-19 than if they were allowed to remain in the encampments.”

Prince described it an important decision not just for Santa Cruz, but for the whole state. He said the ruling is “fair warning to those cities and counties who continue to conduct sweeps and break up encampments against CDC guidelines just as COVID-19 cases are reaching record levels” and new strains of the virus are identified in California.

For months, San Lorenzo Park has been home to a large number of people, many of whom stayed put in downtown Santa Cruz after the Federal Emergency Management Agency ordered Santa Cruz County to move its homeless encampment out of the nearby Benchlands floodplain. The county relocated that camp to the Armory in DeLaveaga Park, and it is now completely full, according to county officials.

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