A meeting in Seabright about Santa Cruz’s “temporary outdoor living ordinance” attracted a large crowd, including Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers, who used a megaphone to speak to the group about their concerns.
(Courtesy Wyatt Hull)

Santa Cruz ordinance restricting where homeless people can camp likely ‘dead’ after widespread opposition

After a whirlwind tour of virtual and in-person meetings with city residents and business owners all over town, Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers says the city’s controversial “temporary outdoor living ordinance” appears to be “dead.”

For weeks, Santa Cruz residents have been flooding city officials with letters of concern and calls to change the ordinance, which, in its current form, prohibits unsheltered people from camping overnight in most parts of the city, including Downtown.

After the law passed with opposition in March, word spread through various neighborhoods that homeless campers might be forced to relocate to permissible areas near homes or businesses at night. That, in turn, sparked a variety of neighborhood groups, beginning with residents in Seabright, to rise up against the “TOLO,” as Meyers and others have dubbed it.

“I think I’ve talked to almost 500 people in the last week,” Meyers told Lookout on Monday. The ordinance “is not really what they want.”

The Seabright community came out passionately Sunday.
(Courtesy Wyatt Hull)

The people with whom Meyers spoke included residents along Ocean Street, on the outer Westside and in the Branciforte corridor, along with businesspeople in Midtown. She also addressed large number of people from Seabright.

When they passed the ordinance last month, city council members delayed implementing it for a variety of reasons, including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. On Tuesday night, they are set to consider a whole slate of changes to the ordinance, but they could also decide to scrap it entirely, instead going with more streamlined options proposed by city staff.

That’s the way Meyers is leaning, she said.

Included in the 1,000-plus-page packet of information for Tuesday’s meeting are two alternate versions of the outdoor living ordinance. Both would aim to address “nuisance conditions” caused by large homeless encampments — the original issue city officials said they set out to solve — without being overly cumbersome, which has been a main critique of the policy.

“I think TOLO was kind of trying to be everything to everyone. And it was too complicated, you know?” Meyers said. Her approach on Tuesday, and the one she hopes other council members will adopt, is to strip the ordinance down to simple, doable pieces, such as creating programs where unsheltered people can sleep.

The first alternative would be more narrowly tailored to only ban camping in some areas during the day, and to crack down on problems linked to “large, unsanctioned, long-term encampments [that] are almost always associated with a host of major health and safety impacts, including: open and obvious drug use and related crimes, serious fire safety concerns, major impacts related to human and animal waste and accumulation of trash, vandalism,” the staff report says.

By taking this route, the city could skirt Martin v. Boise, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2018 which made it illegal for municipalities to criminalize sleeping outdoors unless there is adequate space available in shelters or other facilities.

Another option is for Santa Cruz leaders to ban camping on all public property in the city, except for city-sanctioned “safe sleeping” sites and managed encampments, which would most likely be on city property.

“I think the broadest agreement is: use city properties,” and keep camps and programs out of residential neighborhoods, Meyers said.

On Tuesday, city officials will have to choose a direction.

Do they scrap the ordinance they started out with or amend the TOLO until it becomes a law that is more palatable to city residents? That could include removing certain commercial or industrial areas from the list of places where overnight camping on public property would be allowed, such as in Seabright.

How to participate
  • Event
    Learn more and join the conversation
    Santa Cruz City Council will meet on Tuesday, April 13 beginning with a closed session at 8:30 a.m. You can join in the public meeting at 11:30 a.m.
    Tuesday, April 13, 2021 - 11:00 AM

Another change being considered would establish a buffer around schools so that camping won’t occur within a certain radius.

The original ordinance mainly focused on putting many parts of Santa Cruz off-limits to overnight camping, and giving police the power to arrest and cite violators. However, many community members criticized the law for its lack of proactive, compassionate solutions to homelessness. In response, city officials then added a “safe sleeping” program that would give at least 150 people a semi-supervised place to set up a tent or sleeping bag and camp out every night.

Under a separate proposal to be discussed on Tuesday, the city could adopt a policy that would prioritize people with disabilities, their caretakers and families with children for slots at sleeping programs and managed camps.

City officials also incorporated a storage program for people to keep their belongings during the daytime. And, most recently, council members directed city staff to explore the possibility of a city-managed encampment at 1220 River St., the site of a former camp. The managed encampment would offer more services and oversight than an unmanaged camp, but its creation depends on how “financially feasible” it is, according to a staff report.

Sunday in Seabright.
(Courtesy Wyatt Hull)

A managed encampment with 24/7 staffing would cost more than $1 million per year, and a “safe sleeping” program for about 150 people would cost $750,000 per year, according to the city’s rough estimates. A daytime storage program would cost about $75,000 per location per year, city staff say.

However, those figures are early estimates. The city is planning to put out a call for proposals from not-for-profit organizations and private contractors to get a clearer picture of what operating the programs could cost. All in all, costs associated with the ordinance could “reduce other, reactionary costs that the city has regularly incurred,” such as cleaning up after large encampments, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Figuring out an adequate location for safe sleeping areas and encampments would be difficult, city staff admit in the report — as evidenced by the collective outbursts across Santa Cruz in recent weeks, many residents and businesses don’t want homelessness on display in their neighborhoods.

“Previous attempts to cite such facilities have been met with significant community backlash,” the staff report says. “Thus, while this approach may address some of the immediate community concerns about where camping is allowed, the size and number of shelters, managed camps, and/or safe sleeping sites will likely result in similar community concerns arising when potential safe sleeping sites are identified.”

Despite fielding TOLO frustrations for “10 hours a day” for a week, Meyers said she’s been heartened to hear residents say they want solutions. Even if the original ordinance is a failure, it pushed many people to start having an active, community-wide dialogue about the city’s homelessness crisis, she said.

“I think it’s moved people, and that’s a good thing. Public policy is really hard to do,” Meyers said.

Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty, whose district includes much of the city, said he tried to hammer home the complexity of the issue while he was at a meeting with Seabright residents on Sunday. He was asked to attend the community meeting outside of Day’s Market to explain the role and responsibility of the county in solving homelessness.

“Everyone’s got in their minds what maybe is an easy answer and unfortunately, those easy answers don’t exist,” he told Lookout on Monday.

Coonerty explained how the county has been able to double its shelter capacity since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, in large part due to an influx of federal funding earmarked specifically for the homeless. However, with the money set to expire in September, the county is scrambling to find money or space to prevent 600 residents from losing stable shelter and ending up on the streets.

“So not only do we have to help people who are unsheltered right now, but we have to find a path for hundreds of people who are at-risk” of losing shelter, he said on Monday.

Go Deeper
  • General
    Read through possible TOLO amendments
    On Tuesday, the Santa Cruz City Council is set to consider changes (some major) to the temporary outdoor living ordinance. Many alternatives are laid out in a report from city staff, that begins on page 979 of the agenda packet.

Contributing: Mark Conley


March 30: Seabright speaks up: Residents, businesses frustrated by outdoor living ordinance that would allow camping

March 31: Santa Cruz mayor responds after Seabright residents sound off about ‘outdoor living ordinance’

April 5: After intense backlash, Santa Cruz mayor to propose striking Seabright from areas where homeless can sleep

April 8: Top Santa Cruz officials try to allay Seabright’s fears about homeless as camping ordinance revisions emerge