Keith McHenry of Food Not Bombs makes himself heard to those who gathered outside Santa Cruz City Hall.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)
Government

TOLO out, CSSO in: Santa Cruz City Council gives first OK to new homeless camping law

The new ordinance, which needs two approvals to become law, is more cut-and-dried than the TOLO, and more restrictive. If approved, the ordinance would ban outdoor sleeping everywhere in Santa Cruz except at sites specifically designated by the city for overnight camping.

A revamped version of the “Temporary Outdoor Living Ordinance,” or TOLO — now renamed the “Camping Services and Standards Ordinance” — was given an initial nod by the Santa Cruz City Council Tuesday evening, kicking off another round of public input and discussion.

Tuesday’s hearing was the city’s second attempt at a law to eliminate homeless encampments in public spaces and their deleterious effects. The most recent iteration was killed by city leaders after widespread opposition and confusion over how the law would work.

The new ordinance, which needs two approvals to become law, is more cut-and-dried than the TOLO, and more restrictive. If approved, the ordinance would ban outdoor sleeping everywhere in Santa Cruz except at sites specifically designated by the city for overnight camping.

Keith McHenry holds court.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

On first reading, the proposal passed 5-2. Councilmembers Sandy Brown and Justin Cummings were the only ones to vote down the ordinance, saying there hasn’t yet been enough input on it from residents.

The city’s deliberations took place on the same day Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed a commitment of $12 billion to address the state’s homelessness crisis, including a pool of $50 million for encampment management. Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers recently co-authored a letter with county supervisors, urging the governor to help the city with its prevalent homelessness issues.

Councilmember Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson said the revised ordinance — if ultimately approved on second reading later this month — should put the city in a good position to compete for a share of that cash.

“As a grant writer, I know what it takes to be competitive as a community. Funders want to see communities that are in action. Funders want to see that we are capable of moving forward with solutions, and so this is a step in that direction,” Kalantari-Johnson said. “And so when the state sees that we have made progress, and we have stood up 150 safe sleeping sites in a matter of months, they’re going to want to fund us because they’re going to want to see our efforts progress and expand.”

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Here are more details about what the proposal entails, how people are reacting to it and the next steps on its path to potential approval:

What is different about this new law?

Among the biggest changes in the revised law: Whereas the previously proposed rules would’ve left areas with certain zoning open to overnight camping on public property — a proposal that sparked a vehement public backlash in some neighborhoods — the updated ordinance essentially prohibits daytime and nighttime camping citywide once certain conditions are met.

Before a daytime camping prohibition could take effect, a program would need to be available for unhoused people to be able to store their personal effects and belongings. That storage program could be placed at the same location as a safe sleeping site.

City staff will soon publish a request for service providers which could operate this daytime storage program, as well as managed encampments, safe sleeping sites, shelters, hygiene services and outreach to the homeless.

There have been signs of progress in the litigation between the homeless union and Santa Cruz officials in advance of a...

Initial estimates based on similar efforts in the past show the safe sleeping program could cost around $750,000 a year to serve about 150 individuals at three sites of 50 people each. Operating a staffed, daytime storage program is estimated to cost about $75,000 per location per year. City officials will have a better idea of the real costs once service providers respond to the aforementioned request.

Second, for a nighttime ban on camping to kick in, the city would have to provide at least 150 spaces for people to sleep in shelters, managed encampments or “safe sleeping” sites on city-owned or operated properties or facilities. The city plans to make its shelters and sleeping sites “as low barrier as we can,” Planning Director Lee Butler said Tuesday.

In response to an April letter from the American Civil Liberties Union that raised concerns about unsheltered individuals who might work at night and need to sleep during the day, city staff revised the law to allow daytime sleeping areas for those who work nights.

Homeless encampment at San Lorenzo Park
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The latest camping law could face a legal challenge, but the city has tried to avoid such a fate by molding the ordinance around restrictions imposed by the Martin v. Boise court decision, which made blanket camping bans unconstitutional when there is no available shelter space for people experiencing homelessness.

Santa Cruz County is serving 800 people in its network of normal homeless shelters and emergency COVID-19 shelters, and hundreds remain on the waitlist, county spokesperson Jason Hoppin told Lookout last week.

How would the city designate safe sleeping sites?

The city is still far from settling on an appropriate site for such a program, but city staff noted in a report to the council that they initially are looking at downtown parking lots as potential locations, including the River Street garage and the parking structure on Cedar Street, between Church Street and Walnut Street. The city is also considering the recently vacated River Street Shelter at 115 C Coral Street, on the Housing Matters campus, and 1220 River St., the previous site of a city-managed homeless camp.

But before initiating operation of any facility, staff would conduct community outreach, focusing on those residents and businesses located near proposed safe sleeping locations, according to city staff.

Although city staff initially said safe sleeping sites and managed encampments wouldn’t be located near residential areas or schools, councilmembers amended the ordinance to allow for sleeping locations in those areas when they are sponsored by schools, churches or other religious institutions.

How are people reacting?

Some members of the public expressed support for the proposed ordinance. Those supporters included residents who were vocal opponents of the defunct TOLO, which drew the ire of people in certain neighborhoods, including Seabright, as they realized that camping by unsheltered people would be allowed in areas not accustomed to seeing it now.

Other supporters included Robert Singleton, former executive director of Santa Cruz County Business Council, who credited the council with responding to residents’ and business owners’ concerns.

“I want to talk a little bit about what this ordinance does right,” Singleton said. “This ordinance does provide more housing options for unsheltered folks than what we had previously had. I know it’s been a lot of back and forth about where managed encampments should go, but the fact that the city has has gone and listened to neighborhoods, gone and talked to a lot of people and identified these clear sites is a big step in the right direction.”

But about two dozen protesters gathered outside city hall on Tuesday afternoon in opposition. Others criticized the proposal during the virtual city council meeting, saying the ordinance — as TOLO did previously — goes too far and “criminalizes” homelessness.

Here is a sampling of their concerns:

“This ordinance does not take into account our responsibility for our role in why people who are unhoused will not make use of our shelters and our programs. ... Any population camping without management will get out of control, whether that’s people with $300,000 RVs at a state park or people who are unhoused. This camping ban makes it more difficult for nonprofits and county services to engage, build trust and to offer services. I applaud creating safe sleep locations and a storage program, yet we all know there won’t be enough space for everyone. Then why is this ordinance making being homeless illegal? Criminalize crime, don’t criminalize being poor and homeless.”

— Serg Kagno, Stepping up Santa Cruz, former member of Community Advisory Committee on Homelessness

“The nature of having to pick up and move every single day is a well-documented destabilizing force in people’s lives. ... It is widely acknowledged by experts that redirecting funds towards productive and preventative solutions is one of the most cost-effective weapons we have against homelessness. This means providing people with meaningful support, not proposing bare minimum services in order to justify criminalization.”

— Sabina Holber, “Westside Cares”

Kevin Leland, who lives in San Lorenzo Park, looks on outside City Hall on Tuesday.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

“This new ordinance continues to criminalize houselessness, while offering the most paltry and vague remedies ... People living outside are not camping, they’re living — and often working — without housing. Disallowing people experiencing homelessness from seeking shelter in parks and open spaces, day or night, effectively privatizes public land from them. If essentially all land is private or privatized, where can people go?”

— Joy Schendledecker, Sanitation for the People, homeowner on the Westside

What’s next?

The ordinance will head to a second and final reading on May 25.

Until and at that meeting, community members can make their voices heard by emailing citycouncil@cityofsantacruz.com. The city also plans to host an informational webinar about the ordinance on Thursday, May 20, but details were not yet available on the city calendar as of Wednesday morning.

Even if approved on May 25, enforcement of the ordinance likely would take time after that.

Aside from the city’s aforementioned task of establishing safe sleeping sites and a storage program, the ordinance also contains provisions that would prevent enforcement until certain COVID-19 thresholds are met. The rules would not be enforced until the county is moved into the “yellow tier” or lower by state health officials, or the tiering system ends and the state more fully reopens the economy, which is expected to happen by June 15.

If the ordinance is approved, city staff will report back to councilmembers with a quarterly census of the homeless population, a review of the effectiveness of the ordinance, as well as a semi-annual review of any arrests and citations tied to the new law.

The city is also in talks with Santa Cruz County, which leads — and funds — the majority of homelessness response, to find new ways to get people experiencing homelessness connected with needed resources.

Updates:

8:47 PM, May. 11, 2021: This story was updated to reflect the city council’s vote on the proposed ordinance on Tuesday night.