The 30-person "agreement camp" at Harvey West Park
Camps like this 30-person “agreement camp” at Harvey West Park in Santa Cruz are homelessness interventions that need more funding, advocates say.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Major Santa Cruz proposal affecting homeless up for final vote Tuesday. Will recent changes help it pass?

The ‘temporary outdoor living ordinance,’ also known as the ‘camping ordinance,’ passed 5-2 on its first reading last month after two city council members suggested key changes. But as another key vote looms Tuesday, community debate continues to heat up.

If there’s anyone in Santa Cruz who’s wrestled with the city’s homelessness crisis, it’s Don Lane. Besides being a former three-time mayor, city council member and part of the city’s Community Advisory Committee on Homelessness, he’s worked on the issue for three decades in roles with various community organizations.

So with a key vote looming Tuesday on a proposed law that would create sweeping restrictions on where, when and how Santa Cruz’s homeless population can live outdoors, Lane sees both sides of the fence.

Don Lane stands in a pallet shelter he helped build at Housing Matters.
(Courtesy Don Lane)

As a veteran of city politics, he knows council members are under enormous pressure to tackle the problem decisively yet compassionately.

But he ultimately sees the proposed ordinance as “still a work in progress” that is likely to evolve should council members move forward and approve it. If that happens, the proposed law’s effectiveness would be reviewed nine months after its adoption, according to guidelines that the city council has given to staff.

“It’s a really good try, but it’s still insufficient in a sense,” Lane said of the proposed law, called the “temporary outdoor living ordinance.”

Among the shortcomings seen by Lane and other homeless advocates:

  • The ordinance puts homeless people far from basic amenities and services, such as bathrooms, showers, meal providers and social services. There’s also confusion about how camping restrictions apply to certain areas, sparking questions about exactly where people can stay.
  • It ignores the realities of being unsheltered to the point that its rules would be impossible to fully follow; for example, requiring people to put up and take down tents every day is impractical, given how quickly tents can fray and break. People “are going to sleep outside wherever they can, and they’re going to greet the tickets and rip them up like they always have,” predicts Brent Adams, of Footbridge Services Center in Santa Cruz, a homeless services organization.
  • It differs vastly from the recommendations made last year by the aforementioned Community Advisory Committee on Homelessness on which Lane and 12 others served.

That committee, Lane said, focused more on how to bring services to help homeless people get into programs that would eventually take them off the streets — rather than ban them, as the ordinance would do, from camping downtown and in city parks, residential neighborhoods and other high-traffic areas where people live and shop.

“We were more about the carrot,” Lane explained, than the proverbial stick.

On the flip side, residents for years have raised safety concerns about drug use, crime and other challenges that can be byproducts of large, unmanaged homeless encampments.

A lack of shelter beds, affordable housing and mental health services has only made the problem worse. At last count, there were at least 865 unsheltered homeless people within the Santa Cruz city limits.

The outdoor living ordinance, also known as the camping ordinance, passed 5-2 on its first reading last month after two city council members suggested changes to better align it with recommendations from homeless service providers and the CACH.

Council members can give final approval to that version on Tuesday. If four of seven do so, it would go into effect in 30 days.

But if they make any substantial edits to the ordinance during that so-called second reading, the law would have to return to a first reading and go through the process again.

Whatever the decision, there’s a lot at stake. So here’s a deeper look at the ordinance’s evolution, recent changes that have been made and what critics say should be stricken or improved.

How Santa Cruz got here

Santa Cruz once had a citywide ban on camping, but the city council rescinded it after the courts found a similar ordinance in Boise, Idaho, unconstitutional in 2018.

The ordinance the Santa Cruz City Council is now considering attempts to address those constitutional concerns and withstand potential legal challenges. Its release comes as the county’s many homeless shelters and a handful of managed encampments have been close to full or at capacity for months.

What’s changed in recent weeks

Shortly before the first reading of the ordinance on Feb. 23, two council members — Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson and Vice Mayor Sonja Brunner — took steps to try to make it more humane.

Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson.
(J. Guevara, provided by Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson.)

Kalantari-Johnson, a trained social worker with experience in homelessness-related issues, said she would not support the ordinance without the city agreeing to establish new “safe sleeping” transitional encampments for at least 150 people. Such encampments give people experiencing homelessness a consistent, secure place to spend the night.

“That’s not going to solve homelessness, but that’s a huge step,” Kalantari-Johnson said.

Kalantari-Johnson also insisted that the safe sleeping program be up and running within 60 days should the ordinance pass, according to council records. To Kalantari-Johnson, it was crucial that the program be set on a specific timeline, “so there’s a level of accountability.”

But how much the program would cost and other details have yet to be determined. Meanwhile, Santa Cruz County supervisors, Lookout reported on Friday, are considering similar ways to add shelter beds through partnerships with churches and community organizations.

Lane, the former Santa Cruz mayor, said Kalantari-Johnson’s insistence on a “lightly managed” sleeping space would be an important gain for the city, since Santa Cruz hasn’t embraced such a model before. That part of the ordinance would give organizations like the Association of Faith Communities, which has already been running shelter and safe sleep programs, a “legal framework” through which to partner with the city to run encampments, Lane said.

AFC Board Chair Jon Showalter said he was pleased to see the new safe sleeping provisions that would allow the city to partner with his and other not-for-profit groups to run them.

For the past eight years, AFC has been operating a rotating shelter program for 40 people, mostly funded by donations from individuals and Santa Cruz faith organizations.

In another change championed by Kalantari-Johnson and Brunner, the council is now requiring that outreach services be provided to unsheltered people before, or at the same time, police get involved in enforcing the proposed law. Lane said that change was critical — and a reflection of the work of CACH members.

But are the changes enough?

Even though the proposed ordinance is more permissive than the outright camping ban of a few years ago, the latest version still avoids solutions that address the issue head-on, advocates say.

“It’s really not well-thought out. It’s not vetted by the people who actually work with these people. People who wrote this don’t have any idea of the lived experience of people on the streets,” said Adams, of the aforementioned Footbridge Services Center in Santa Cruz.

For example, Adams said, there has been no discussion about the material reality of putting up and taking down a tent every day — since the ordinance limits the hours tents can be up. After a few times of doing that, most tents start to malfunction and break, he said. Adams also pointed to how “far-flung” the permitted camping areas are, distant from service providers, bathrooms and other basic amenities to which people need access.

Adams also has doubts about how enforcing the ordinance will work, since many people experiencing homelessness often have no choice but to violate such strict rules, and “don’t care” about citation fines going to a collections agency.

A better approach, he said, would be to create an array of diverse shelter options that can help the hundreds of unsheltered people in the city to live in a “dignified” way. “Desperate people behave desperately. When you can remove some of the desperation, they make different choices,” he said.

Safe sleep zones are helpful, but there should be warming centers like the one Adams runs, larger capacity winter shelters, a car camping program and tiny homes, he said. He also would like permission for “agreement camps,” to continue, like a 30-person encampment that has been at Harvey West Park for four months, are another option that would not require city involvement, he said.

The Harvey West camp has a set of rules that those living there must follow, and it is governed by the campers themselves. The point is to have a system in which “something is available for everyone,” and to use those places to connect people to the resources they need, Adams said.

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.

An outside expert’s take

In 2015, researchers at the University of California Berkeley School of Law found that 58 California cities had a combined 500 laws imposing restrictions on the activities of homeless people, including limitations on sleeping, standing, camping and eating. Generally speaking, ordinances that strictly restricted where homeless people can live proved ineffective at reducing homelessness, that study found.

“I have not followed all of the recent events in Santa Cruz, including the origins of this latest bill, but I can say with confidence from our research and others, that ordinances like this always make things worse for homeless people,” said Jeffrey Selbin, a professor who led the study and faculty director of the Policy Advocacy Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law.

“Santa Cruz may temporarily be able to ‘clean up’ public space in the eyes of non-homeless people, but they will only deepen human suffering by pushing vulnerable people to another part of the city or to a surrounding community.”