Tents at a homeless encampment in San Lorenzo Park in February 2021
Tents at a homeless encampment at San Lorenzo Park on Feb. 9, 2021.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Huge development on homelessness: Santa Cruz plan to restrict camping gets initial nod, with some key changes

The city’s ‘outdoor living’ ordinance would issue sweeping restrictions on where and when camping is allowed. But — after hearing and reading hundreds of comments — city council members changed parts of the proposed law during a meeting that stretched into the early-morning hours Wednesday.

A hotly debated ordinance that would greatly limit where unsheltered people in Santa Cruz can live outdoors was given initial approval in a 5-2 vote by the city council in the early morning hours Wednesday.

Council members Martine Watkins, Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson, Renee Golder, Vice Mayor Sonja Brunner and Mayor Donna Meyers voted for the sweeping new restrictions on “outdoor living.” Council members Sandy Brown and Justin Cummings voted against them.

Brown and Cummings cited concerns with the ethics and potential effectiveness of the ordinance, the potential of legal challenges, and the amount of time elected officials and the public had to consider the ordinance before a vote was taken. The full text of the proposed law was first made public last week. Among other things, it would make sweeping restrictions on where and when camping is allowed, and what rules people experiencing homelessness must follow to avoid citations from police.

During Tuesday’s meeting, city officials began discussing the ordinance at 5:30 p.m. After almost four dozen public comments and hours of deliberation, council members landed on a revised version that will move ahead to a second — and final — vote on March 9.

Before the meeting, the city received “hundreds” of emails from community members about the proposed law. When Mayor Meyers closed public comment late Tuesday to give the council time to make edits, at least 26 other people were still waiting in line virtually to speak, according to Cummings.

The majority of those who addressed the council expressed opposition, calling the ordinance an effort to “criminalize homelessness” instead of addressing the root causes. Those speaking in favor of it said the ordinance would provide much-needed relief, since the magnitude of Santa Cruz’s homelessness crisis has made them feel unsafe in their neighborhoods.

In all, it was a marathon meeting that got close to setting a record length for a Santa Cruz City Council meeting, some officials noted around 1 a.m.

In order to avoid running afoul of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling in Martin v. Boise, the city cannot place an outright ban on camping if there are no available shelter beds. There are more than 800 unsheltered people in Santa Cruz, and county shelters have been at or near capacity for months.

But city officials say they can legally designate areas where living outdoors is prohibited. The proposed ordinance would do just that, prohibiting camping in large swaths of Santa Cruz, including downtown, city beaches, all parks, areas near waterways and trails, fire- and flood-prone locations and some environmentally sensitive regions.

A map of Santa Cruz that shows areas where unsheltered people can not camp, and areas that could be "potentially prohibited."
A map of Santa Cruz shows areas where unsheltered people can not camp, and areas that could be “potentially prohibited” due to environmental reasons under the new city ordinance. During the city council’s Feb. 23 meeting, residential areas not marked off in this map were also added to the list of places that are off-limits.
(Courtesy city of Santa Cruz)

After hearing from the public, council members made several key changes to the ordinance. Among them is to ban camping in residential neighborhoods — one of the few areas in the city where overnight camping was explicitly permitted in the original draft.

Instead of allowing camping in residential areas, the ordinance would task the city with creating a “safe sleeping” program for at least 150 people to stay overnight in a city parking lot, a public right-of-way, private property or another area authorized by the city manager. That program would need to begin within 60 days of when the ordinance is given final approval — and no later than June 30.

Another edit was changing the hours during which camping would be allowed. In the original proposal, camping was only allowed from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. in permitted areas. The change made Tuesday allows camping from one hour before sunset until 7 a.m., in order to account for shorter days in the winter and morning traffic, respectively.

The ban on daytime camping, which contained certain exceptions for people with “qualifying disabilities,” now also includes exceptions for families with children under 18 and for caregivers of people with disabilities, according to changes council members made to the proposed law. The prohibition on daytime camping also does not apply during rainfall, sleet or snow, or when the projected high temperature for the day is 50 degrees or lower. Also, daytime restrictions would not go into effect until free COVID-19 vaccines are accessible to the unsheltered population — and the city has a program for people to store their belongings during the day.

Council member Kalantari-Johnson, a trained social worker, requested outreach services be provided to campers before they are issued a warning or citation. Several council members wanted provisions that would allow the city to revisit the ordinance later this year and analyze its impacts.

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.

City staff are working on incorporating these requests and the other changes into the updated version of the ordinance that will go before city council for a final vote on March 9. The public can submit comments about the proposed law before then, and also during that meeting.