Aerial view of Seabright
Controversy and confusion have erupted over exactly where overnight camping by unsheltered people would be allowed in Santa Cruz’s Seabright neighborhood (above) under a new city ordinance. Changes to the ordinance are expected to be formally unveiled today.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Government

Top Santa Cruz officials try to allay Seabright’s fears about homeless as camping ordinance revisions emerge

The big takeaway: Mayor Donna Meyers told frustrated Seabright residents that she would bring forth a proposal to place all commercial zones in the city, including in their neighborhood, off-limits for overnight camping. But a more nuanced discussion about homelessness took place as well.

On the eve of unveiling potential changes to Santa Cruz’s controversial “temporary outdoor living ordinance,” city leaders tried to explain the rationale of the new law to dozens of Seabright residents in a virtual town hall meeting Wednesday night. About 75 community members logged on for the two-and-a-half-hour Zoom session with Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers, Police Chief Andy Mills, City Manager Martín Bernal and Planning Director Lee Butler, who also heads the city’s homelessness response.

The big takeaway: Meyers told frustrated Seabright residents that she would bring forth a proposal to place all commercial zones in the city off-limits for overnight camping. That means only a small industrial area in their neighborhood, dominated by the privately owned Seabright Cannery property, will stay in the law. Camping is banned on all private property unless the owner gives consent.

What also became evident during the meeting is the level of frustration that residents and city officials alike are experiencing as the city grapples with what all agree is a homelessness crisis. Right now, few unsheltered people camp in Seabright, despite camping being permitted everywhere in Santa Cruz. But the new ordinance — approved by the city council in mid-March — would drastically reduce where camping is allowed, including a ban in all of Downtown, where many people experiencing homelessness now live.

Many Seabright residents have feared their neighborhood would become a go-to place for unsheltered people to sleep since parts of it fall on the list of “permitted” areas.

Bernal insisted Wednesday that’s not the case.

“Our intent is to discourage people and direct people to our ‘safe sleeping’ sites and existing shelters, not into your neighborhoods, not into so-called permitted areas, because while technically there is a certain level of permission that could occur, that is not what we intend to do and want to happen,” he told Seabright residents. “So at a practical level, once the ordinance is implemented ... then our approach would be to really direct people to the appropriate locations, have the facilities there, convenient for them to work, and really discourage people from being in those areas where they really shouldn’t shouldn’t be.”

The changes being proposed

As the ordinance now stands, portions of Seabright Avenue, between Hall Street and Marine Parade, would be permitted to have overnight camping, as well as segments of Watson, Bronson and Hall streets. Under the outdoor living ordinance, residential areas are explicitly off-limits to camping. However, camping is allowed, from one hour before sunset to 8 a.m., on public property (mostly sidewalks) in the Seabright business district, which is surrounded by residential areas.

A city map shows the neighborhood commercial and industrial zones in Seabright.
A city map shows the neighborhood commercial and industrial zones in Seabright. Under proposed changes to the city’s outdoor living ordinance, the commercial area (in purple) would be removed from the list of places where overnight camping is permitted on public property.
(Screenshot, Santa Cruz GIS)

But if the changes Meyers is proposing are approved, Seabright’s commercial zone at the intersection of Seabright Avenue and Murray Street would be removed from the short list of places where sleeping outdoors is permitted under the law. Other commercial zones that would be removed are:

  • In the Circles neighborhood, 214 California Ave., and a section of Errett Circle between Woodrow Avenue and Pendegast Avenue.
  • In the upper Westside, 218 Cardiff Place, off of High Street.
  • On lower Ocean Street, at the intersection with Barson Street.
  • West of downtown, the intersection of Laurel Street and Chestnut Street, across from Laurel Park.

More information about the changes is expected to be released today.

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Inside Seabright’s seething

When homeowners and residents learned of the law in late March, many fumed at the idea of sharing sidewalks and public space with the homeless, and feared an increase in crime. Neighbors organized a coalition, scheduled weekly meetings in the parking lot of Day’s Market, printed slogans onto posters and fliers — “Save Seabright” and “Seabright Strong” — and hammered elected officials on the matter, insisting the neighborhood be removed from the ordinance altogether.

Many of the most vocal Seabright residents filled the Zoom chat with questions and critiques on Wednesday night. Like many early critics of the camping ordinance, they didn’t understand how the law was written, how it would be enforced or why they weren’t consulted early on in the process.

Bernal, the city manager, said he understood why neighbors were so confused and upset by the ordinance. Ideally, camping would be prohibited in all parts of Santa Cruz, he said, noting that Santa Cruz had an outright ban on camping in all parts of the city until 2019, when it became unenforceable. That’s because in 2018, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals made blanket camping bans unconstitutional when there is no other place for a homeless person to sleep — so the city must allow camping somewhere, Bernal explained.

Areas in Seabright industrial zone where overnight camping is allowed under the temporary outdoor living ordinance.
A map showing areas in Seabright where overnight camping is currently allowed (shown in blue) under Santa Cruz’s new “temporary outdoor living ordinance.” Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers is proposing scaling back those areas amid complaints from Seabright businesses and residents.
(Courtesy city of Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz County has expanded its stock of shelter beds over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, but most shelters remain full as housing instability increases. This week, county officials also confirmed that a 32-bed shelter on River Street in Santa Cruz would be closing at the end of the month because of funding tied to the COVID-19 pandemic drying up.

Meanwhile, two large homeless encampments in the city are also set to be swept out in coming weeks. One, in San Lorenzo Park, is set to move nearby into the Benchlands under stricter rules for inhabitants, per a compromise the city struck with the local homeless union in court. Another, at Highways 1 and 9, will be cleared out to make way for a major road-widening project.

On Wednesday, Bernal peeled back the bureaucratic curtain to outline a few key, interconnected purposes the ordinance serves: to prevent the formation of “entrenched” encampments and associated nuisances (litter, noise, crime), to give police more power to control where the homeless can legally be, and to funnel unsheltered people toward city-managed sites. With the new ordinance, Santa Cruz is engaging in a sort of national experiment, he admitted — few, if any, other municipalities have developed such a stringent camping law to get around the Boise decision.

“Our legal advice is that we need to be able to demonstrate to the court, if challenged — and we expect that we will get challenged — that we can demonstrate that [unsheltered] people do have options” about where to sleep, Bernal said. “This Martin v. Boise legal issue ... it’s almost nonsensical, to be honest. It’s very frustrating for us, because it just makes no sense for anybody to camp anywhere.”

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Whittling down of camping zones

The impending, possible removal of Seabright’s commercial zone from the list of places where people can sleep will mean that what started as a more broad proposal has been whittled down to just a few spots. Lookout is seeking a revised version of the map the city originally released when the ordinance passed.

Only public property in two industrial areas, in the far Westside and Harvey West area, and the primary commercial corridors of Ocean, Water, Mission and Soquel will remain viable for camping.

The city council was already set to vote on a package of amendments to the ordinance at the April 13 meeting, but several new proposals have also emerged in recent days and will be addressed on Tuesday.

In addition to the removal of neighborhood commercial zones, city leaders will also discuss giving homeless residents with disabilities priority in accessing the 150-person-plus “safe sleeping” programs and managed encampment the city plans to create. Both the safe sleeping program and the encampment were written into the law to give some unsheltered people a supervised place to stay when city- and county-funded shelters are full.

Council members will also decide Tuesday whether to create no-camping buffers around schools, Butler said.