‘Absolutely have to do better’: In homeless camping law rewrite, Santa Cruz leaders vow to hear out residents
UPDATE: The “temporary outdoor living ordinance,” known as TOLO, was suspended by the Santa Cruz City Council on Tuesday night amid outcries from all corners of the city. Most councilmembers struck an apologetic tone, expressing regret over the lack of effort put into gathering community input about the ordinance before it was passed.
The Santa Cruz City Council decided Tuesday night it will suspend a widely unpopular law passed last month that would’ve left only a few areas in the city for homeless people to camp overnight. In its place, the council is pledging to adopt a brand new law that is more streamlined, but still focused on demarcating specific places where unsheltered people can sleep.
Most council members struck an apologetic tone during their meeting, expressing regret over the lack of effort put into gathering community input about the ordinance before it was passed last month.
“It is very clear to me that we have not gotten this right, And I believe we all see value in acknowledging that upfront,” Mayor Donna Meyers said.
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“Whatever we do, it has to be with a really, really strong community engagement piece,” said Councilmember Sandy Brown, who voted against the ordinance from the start. “I just feel like we can do better. I mean, we absolutely have to do better.”
Before the law was approved around 1 a.m. on March 10 — and even more so in the weeks since — people from all corners of Santa Cruz have protested, organized and rallied against the “temporary outdoor living ordinance,” known as TOLO, which was first unveiled in late February but went through multiple, rapid-fire iterations afterward.
Councilmember Justin Cummings raised concerns early in the policymaking process about how quickly the proposal was becoming law, but was urged by other council members, including Meyers, to push forward because the city had to “do something” about homeless issues.
On Tuesday, Cummings reiterated his original qualms, and pointed to other hastily made decisions that have landed the city in court, including an attempt to shut down a homeless encampment at San Lorenzo Park in December, against COVID-19 guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
“And by moving swiftly with what we’ve just done, I don’t know how many letters we’ve received from different attorneys from property owners who’ve said, ‘If you move forward, we will be moving forward with litigation,’” Cummings said.
Cummings and Brown voted against the steps taken Tuesday — although they agreed with suspending the TOLO — because they disagreed with some of the guidance that other council members were proposing. Cummings also unsuccessfully pitched the creation of a subcommittee to develop the next version of the ordinance.
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Tuesday’s meeting was intended to be an opportunity for the council to approve amendments to the law, but instead became a decision to do a complete overhaul — and a commitment by city leaders to be more transparent with the public when crafting future policies.
Many constituents have said they felt left out and blindsided by the law, and especially by provisions that would allow people to camp overnight near residential and commercial areas.
“It would’ve been so nice to have a chance to talk before this ordinance just simply passes, but anyways, it’s too late for that. I want to know: How can we do and move towards action?” said Ana Paula Teeple, a Seabright resident. “How to we create a space, a group, where mindful, compassionate, creative minds get together to create, to co-create with the city?”
Homeless advocates and other residents opposed the law because they saw it as unnecessarily punitive, and focused on mainly sweeping the homeless out of sight and criminalizing basic needs without offering any help. Some critics still see any attempt — TOLO or not — to limit where and when the unsheltered can sleep as cruel.
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They also have pointed out how virtual city council meetings during the pandemic have made government processes inaccessible to those without Internet access or devices, including people who are experiencing homelessness and would be most greatly affected by the law.
Since a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2018 made blanket camping bans unconstitutional when there is no other place for a homeless person to sleep, the city must allow camping somewhere, although it would prefer to enact an outright ban, according to City Manager Martín Bernal.
But exactly where unsheltered people should be allowed to sleep has long been a contentious question in Santa Cruz, and it reared its head once again, as one neighborhood after the next rose up against the TOLO.
In the end, almost all of Santa Cruz had been ruled out, and it became clear to city officials that the ordinance was taking the wrong approach. The rewrite is still likely to place broad restrictions on where people can camp but is expected to designate sites on city owned property rather than in neighborhoods.
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2:18 PM, Apr. 14, 2021: This story was updated Wednesday to provide additional context and reporting from the Santa Cruz City Council meeting late Tuesday.