Everything to know about Santa Cruz’s proposed ‘outdoor living’ ordinance on homelessness

The “outdoor living” ordinance, meant to limit public camping, will move to its second — and potentially final — phase of consideration by the Santa Cruz City Council on Tuesday, March 9. In advance, Lookout dives in to the details.

The Santa Cruz City Council is considering a major change to rules on where unsheltered people can live outdoors within the city limits. The ordinance is already proving controversial, with multiple sectors of the community at odds over how best to deal with what’s been described as a city homelessness crisis.

On Feb. 23, the city council gave initial approval, and made some revisions to the proposed ordinance. This story, originally posted late last month, has been updated to reflect those changes.

Here is everything we know about the draft ordinance, which is set to get a final vote on, Tuesday, March 9:


Where did this ordinance come from?

Santa Cruz has been working on creating rules around camping and outdoor living for several years. In 2019, the city council voted to make sure a similar, previously approved camping ordinance wouldn’t be enforced, since the courts had found a similar camping ban unconstitutional.

Take action
  • General
    Weigh in on the ordinance
    The public comment period on the changes to the proposed “outdoor living” ordinance is open in advance of a second council vote on the matter on March 9.

Then, in February 2020, the city’s multidisciplinary Community Advisory Committee on Homelessness (CACH) presented recommendations to the city council for how Santa Cruz could mitigate homelessness-related issues. During that same meeting, the council asked city staff to take those recommendations and craft a new ordinance that could be enforced.

Staff in multiple departments — including police, parks and recreation, and legal — worked together to draft the current proposed ordinance. Parts of it were drawn from approaches in other California cities, such as Oakland, South Lake Tahoe, Eureka, Los Angeles, Berkeley and Marysville, along with Yolo County, Las Vegas and others.

What would the proposed ordinance change?

The ordinance would dictate where and when the estimated 865 people experiencing unsheltered homelessness can camp, and sets guidelines on encampments. Large swaths of the city, including downtown, residential areas, city beaches and neighborhood parks, would be off-limits. The ordinance also maps out environmentally sensitive areas and key water resource areas — and people would be prohibited from camping in those areas as well.

This ordinance would also:

  • Enact restrictions on what non-essential belongings can be kept on public property (such as tires, bike parts, generators and improperly discarded hypodermic needles).
  • Introduce a program to provide a place where unsheltered people can store their belongings during the day.
  • Write into policy that the city needs to establish a parking lot “safe sleeping” program with space for at least 150 people, and the program must be up and running within 60 days from when the ordinance is passed.
  • Increase the number of vehicles that can be parked overnight in designated “safe sleeping” areas, such as church parking lots.
  • Create informational materials to be distributed in print and online with information on where people can and cannot camp.

The ordinance would also give the city manager the authority to take unilateral action on outdoor living. The city manager, for example, could temporarily close areas without council approval “for cleaning, maintenance and/or addressing health and safety concerns,” or for “risks related to fire, flooding or sensitive species.”

How is this different from the last camping ordinance?

Santa Cruz’s previous ordinance made it illegal to camp in any part of the city. The current proposed ordinance designates areas and times for camping and outdoor living, as well as rules governing homeless encampments. The ordinance includes exceptions for families with children under 18, for people with disabilities and their caretakers, and for camping in certain weather conditions.

If passed, key parts of the ordinance cannot be enforced until COVID-19 vaccinations are available for free to people experiencing homelessness — or until the aforementioned storage program for people’s belongings is created.

What happened to the last ordinance?

In September 2018, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Martin v. Boise that cities cannot prosecute people for sleeping on the streets if there is nowhere else for them to go. Santa Cruz County’s homeless shelters have been full or nearly full for months. The Boise ruling made blanket camping bans unconstitutional, and Santa Cruz’s ordinance unenforceable. That’s why the city council in 2019 took action to make sure it isn’t enforced.

What happens if you violate this ordinance?

According to revisions made during the Feb. 23 council meeting, an outreach worker would need to make contact with an unsheltered person before — or at the same time as — law enforcement is involved. Police would be required to, in most cases, issue warnings for first offenses.

The next level of enforcement would be an infraction citation, which carries a maximum fine of $20 or community service. If a person “fails or refuses to come into reasonably prompt compliance” or receives two citations within 30 days, they could be arrested on a misdemeanor charge and face jail time.

In reality, violators likely wouldn’t face jail time because of the low-level nature of the offense — and that the jail population has been limited due to COVID-19 risks, Police Chief Andy Mills said. “It’s very unlikely that somebody is going to go to jail on one of these offenses. So I don’t expect to see incarceration rates rise,” he said on Friday.

How much would it cost to enforce?

The city does not have “specific cost estimates on the difference in expenditures,” Santa Cruz Communications Manager Elizabeth Smith told Lookout. “In the short-term, we expect that there will be more resources required related to enforcement. However, in the long-term, we expect that a reduction in large encampments will create cost savings in Police resources and resources within Parks and Recreation and Public Works.”

Mills said that if the ordinance passes, he will appoint two officers to work on an overtime basis and “do nothing but pay attention to some of those duties, starting with the forbidden areas: the beach, downtown and neighborhood parks.”

Santa Cruz has cracked down on large homeless encampments in the past, in part because of the costs associated with restoring the areas where the camps are located. The city spent an estimated $265,000 on clean-up after a large encampment was cleared out from near the Santa Cruz ROSS store.

Santa Cruz also routinely spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on homelessness each year. This year, the city is expected to spend almost $4 million for “services, homelessness prevention and cleanup, not to mention a substantial percentage of police and fire calls,” according to city staff.


How is “outdoor living” or “camping” defined?

According to the ordinance, to camp is “to place, pitch or occupy camp facilities; to live temporarily in a camp facility or outdoors; to use camp paraphernalia,” which includes bedrolls, tarpaulins, cots, beds, sleeping bags, hammocks or cooking facilities and similar equipment.

An outdoor living encampment is defined as “a collection of items that are used or intended to be used for temporary habitation outdoors.” This does not include vehicles or items that “reasonably appear to be for less than 12-hour, daytime only use,” such as items “brought to a park or beach for a picnic, nap or daytime party,” the ordinance says.

Where is camping allowed?

As long as campers follow other rules outlined in the ordinance, outdoor living is allowed from an hour before sunset to 7 a.m. in certain areas, including:

  • In public areas the city has marked for public camping.
  • At authorized camping events in city parks with a maximum of three nights in a 12-month period, unless otherwise permitted by the city. This rule does not apply to security guards camping in city parks as part of their work.
  • At authorized “safe sleeping” sites or managed encampments approved by the city, such as the “safe sleeping” program that would be launched within 60 days.
  • In public areas that are not explicitly off-limits under the ordinance, and so long as each individual takes up a space no larger than 12 feet by 12 feet and abides by other parts of the law. (Families, people with disabilities and their caretakers are exempt from the 12-by-12 size restriction.)
A map of Santa Cruz showing areas where unsheltered people can't camp, and areas that might be off-limits under a new law.
A map of Santa Cruz that shows areas where unsheltered people can not camp, and areas that could be “potentially prohibited” due to environmental reasons under a new city ordinance being considered.
(Courtesy city of Santa Cruz)

Where is camping disallowed?

Camping is prohibited in “at risk areas,” including:

  • Residential areas. (This was another change made on Feb. 23.)
  • Fire lanes and other right-of-ways that are used by first responders.
  • Locations that block access to city-owned equipment and buildings or that interfere with the city’s ability to access city property for inspection, maintenance or repairs.
  • Areas that “constitute a reasonably foreseeable danger to occupants, first responders, or to one or more identified special-status species” — including in the wildland-urban interface, in environmentally sensitive areas, and in regions prone to fires or floods during high-risk time periods.
  • On the “interior portion” of the San Lorenzo River and the inner, river side of all bike and pedestrian paths in the city.
  • In the Source Water Protection Zone created by the director of the city’s water department and pending approval by council resolution.
  • Any area closed by the city, including sites of previous encampments.
  • All neighborhood and community parks.
  • All city-owned beaches, oceanfront areas, beachfront commercial areas and in the Beach Street public right-of-way.
  • Anywhere within 75 feet of a designated trail included in the Parks Master Plan.
  • In Neary Lagoon, Jessie Street March or Arroyo Seco Canyon.
  • In downtown, as described in the city’s Downtown Plan, plus the block bounded by Center, Church, Chestnut and Locust and the Civic Auditorium. Areas east of the western San Lorenzo River levee are not included as part of downtown.
  • In closed areas of open spaces that allow camping, per the ordinance.
  • In city-owned or operated parking lots, unless authorized through the “safe sleeping” program or as part of a managed homeless encampment.
  • Camping is also not allowed on private property, unless it is done with permission from the property owner or occupant and is shielded from public view. The city can also close other parts to camping at its discretion. Under the new ordinance, the city manager could temporarily close areas. However, city council approval is required if the closure is longer than 30 days, and city staff would need to assess the availability of other camping areas first — unless the action is to address urgent, hazardous conditions.

What are the time restrictions?

In prohibited areas, all camping is forbidden. In public areas where outdoor living is permitted, tents, sleeping bags and other items used for camping should only be used from an hour before sunset until 7 a.m. The original ordinance included provisions for camping from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., but that timeframe was changed on Feb. 23.

Outside of permitted camping hours, unsheltered people can stay in the same spot, but they must pack up all camping and sleeping materials, according to the ordinance.

Again, daytime camping restrictions can only be enforced once the homeless population has access to a free COVID-19 vaccine and the city has created a storage program for unsheltered people to keep their belongings during the day.

Are there any exceptions?

Yes, a few. The prohibition on camping during the day does not apply during rainfall, sleet or snow. The daytime camping rules also don’t apply when the projected high temperature for the day is 50 degrees or lower, according to the National Weather Service.

Families with one or more children under 18 and people with physical or mental disabilities “that would preclude them from packing and storing their tent on a daily basis” would be exempt from the ban on daytime camping on public property. Caretakers for people with disabilities would also be exempt.

Per the draft ordinance, city staff can require verification from a physician if a person has a “qualifying disability that is not apparent.” City and county officials will, in these cases, work to find temporary shelter or housing for people with disabilities. However, if no shelter is available, the person will not be allowed to camp in the same public space for more than 96 hours, and will need to move. The 96-hour rule also applies to families with children under 18.

Are there other restrictions?

The proposed ordinance also puts in place parameters campers must follow in an effort to keep outdoor living areas organized and safe. Outdoor living setups cannot block emergency exits and routes, such as on sidewalks or driveways. Non-permitted electrical taps, open fires, improperly discarded hypodermic needles and litter are also not allowed.

Environmental damage, such as “excavating” soil, cutting vegetation, harming trees or disturbing animal “dens, burrow or nests” is forbidden.

The ordinance also dictates that public property should not be used to store extra car tires, bike parts, gasoline, generators, household furniture, extra propane tanks or “unreasonably combustible materials,” including waste. People living outdoors are banned from dumping wastewater and sewage onto sidewalks, streets, storm drains, open areas and parks. Any violation of this will be considered a citable infraction.

How does this apply to living in a vehicle?

The proposed ordinance does not address people who sleep in their vehicles on public streets. However, the ordinance would increase the number of vehicles that can use “safe-parking” spaces overnight. Six vehicles would be allowed to park at religious institutions participating in the program, and three vehicles would be allowed at participating businesses in non-residential areas. The city council can also allow more vehicles in “safe parking” lots via council resolution.

What will happen to the large encampments at San Lorenzo Park and Highways 1 and 9?

Earlier this year, a federal judge ruled the city could not — for the time being — clear out an encampment at San Lorenzo Park because doing so would pose a COVID-19 threat to the camp inhabitants and the community as a whole. As a result, the city would not be able to enforce its ordinance in San Lorenzo Park until the temporary restraining order is lifted or modified by the court. The city is set to go before a judge again in March to give an update. If the court order expires, encampments would be prohibited in San Lorenzo Park.

The encampment at Highways 1 and 9 is on state property, which means the city does not have the authority to move people from the right-of-way. The city and county have been attempting to work out a deal with state transportation officials to remove the encampment before a major highway expansion project begins in April. Officials haven’t reached a resolution on the issue, and it’s unclear where the people living at that camp will go. Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom last week, urging him to step in and help the city with the highway encampment, and with the city’s larger homelessness issues.


What’s the process for making this law?

The city council has to do two readings and vote on the ordinance twice before it becomes a law. At least four city council members must approve the ordinance on each of those votes in order for it to go forward.

On Feb. 23, five council members voted to approve the ordinance, and two voted against it:

  • For: Mayor Donna Meyers, Vice Mayor Sonja Brunner, and council members Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson, Renee Golder and Martine Watkins.
  • Against: Council members Sandy Brown and Justin Cummings.

The second reading and vote on the ordinance is set for Tuesday, March 9. This will be the final vote on the ordinance unless council members make significant changes to it, in which case the ordinance would need to go back for a first reading and public comment.

When would this start being enforced?

The ordinance would go into effect 30 days after it is approved by the final vote of the city council.

Could this be challenged in court?

Yes, opponents of the ordinance could sue the city over it. However, the city has specifically crafted the ordinance around restrictions imposed by the Martin v. Boise ruling in order to ensure the ordinance could be enforced.

How can I make my voice heard on this issue?

The city council will hear public comments up until and during the March 9 meeting. Comments can also be sent via email or mail to the city. The city also has a form on its website for constituents to submit comments about the ordinance.