The criminalization of car homelessness? How oversized vehicle ordinance could affect Santa Cruz’s unhoused
With a vote of 5-2 last week, the Santa Cruz City Council approved an oversized vehicle ordinance in its first reading, with a second reading yet unscheduled. Opponents to the ordinance, both local activists and legal experts, say it criminalizes homelessness, and could lead to greater issues for the city in addressing the unhoused.
Rosalie said she has lived in Santa Cruz all her life — but in the last three years, she’s found refuge in a trailer parked on Delaware Avenue.
Since she was kicked out of her home by her stepmother in 2016 following her father’s passing, Rosalie has lived throughout the city. Most recently, she’s been joined by her 41-year-old daughter — who was evicted from her Pacific Avenue apartment earlier this year after there was a change in landlords — and her 12-year-old grandson. Yet, with the city’s new RV ordinance ban on the horizon, she’s not entirely sure where her family will go or how it might affect her grandson’s schooling.
None of those experiencing homelessness Lookout talked to wanted to use their last names out of fear it would make their situations more challenging.
“I just want to help my grandson,” she said.
Rosalie is one of many Santa Cruzans and Santa Cruz transplants who have built a community of RVs and trailers throughout the city, some experiencing issues with problematic landlords, others CZU survivors, and still others continuing to deal with the unaffordability of the area’s rent. Yet, for every individual using a vehicle in the fight against homelessness, those concerns could become more prevalent soon, following the Santa Cruz City Council’s passage of an ordinance banning oversized vehicles from parking on city streets last week.
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Rosalie doesn’t know what the plan will be for her family or her neighbors along Delaware when the ordinance goes into effect.
“They don’t like the idea of moving,” she said of her neighbors. “Some are old, and they’re the ones who live up in the mountains. “Some have trailers, and it’s hard to register them — they get tickets, and then they get towed.”
Evolution of the RV ordinance
In September, Vice-Mayor Sonja Brunner and Councilmembers Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson and Renne Golder presented the ordinance to council, with presentations from city staff on the data, environmental and health impacts of keeping oversized vehicles on the streets. The ordinance stemmed from conversations regarding Santa Cruz’s policies on camping in the spring, and additionally recalled a similar ordinance from 2015.
The ordinance, as originally proposed, would ban all parking for oversized vehicles on any public highway, street, alley or city parking lot between midnight and 5 a.m., unless the vehicle had a specific city permit, among other exemptions. The trio also called for an expansion to the city’s safe parking options, such as specifically designated lots where RV dwellers would have the option to park overnight for free.
Currently, the city has 15 safe parking spaces through the Association of Faith Communities, most of which are on churches or other religious sites; the revised ordinance would require a minimum of three emergency safe parking spaces immediately, and a minimum of 30 spaces within four months of the ordinance’s start.
In last Tuesday’s meeting, Brunner noted that she, Kalantari-Johnson and Golder had connected with community organizations, health service providers, and those living in oversized vehicles to best determine amendments to their proposed ordinance, and find ways to incorporate more community input into the ordinance.
“We received a lot of emails with specific additions, edits, comments — we’ve heard a lot of community input in a very short time,” she said.
Deputy City Manager Lee Butler explained some of the ordinance’s changes, including more specifics on the definition of an oversized vehicle and what the ordinance would prohibit for those living in such vehicles, including open fires and parking within 100 feet of an intersection.
Yet, those opposed to the ordinance — including Councilmembers Sandy Brown and Justin Cummings — came out in force, citing that it would criminalize homelessness citywide.
Echoing the sentiment of others, one commenter submitted: “There should be recognition that vehicles are all that folks have,” multiple users said. “If they’re living in their vehicle, it’s the only thing that they have, and we need to be more mindful of that as we think of solutions.”
Following three hours of presentation, public comment and discussion, the ordinance was passed by a vote of 5-2. A second reading of the ordinance is required by law before it legally can go into effect; another has not yet been scheduled.
Kalantari-Johnson spoke with Lookout following the vote, noting that many community members had continued their outreach to her office.
“We want to keep in mind what the ultimate goal is, and that community members all want the same thing — well-being for all,” she said. “This is an imperfect process, but it’s important to not be paralyzed by the complexity of the issues at hand.”
She noted that the second reading could lead to further discussion and amendments to the ordinance, including the minimum number of safe parking spaces and the availability of city services for vehicle dwellers.
“What we’re bringing forward is addressing an issue that’s a real challenge for everyone in our community,” she said. “I encourage people to come back and express not just concerns, but solid solutions — we need specific ways to move forward.”
Criminalization ‘extremely problematic’
To local activists like Rafa Sonnenfeld, a lead with Santa Cruz YIMBY, bringing forth solutions after the ordinance has already been voted on is not enough. Instead, he said, the city has to address the fact that this ordinance is just a “punitive way to make homelessness go away instead of solving anything.”
“Santa Cruz YIMBY believes that, while not ideal, living in a vehicle is one of the only shelter options many people in our community have,” he said, noting that it’s not a stretch to believe hundreds of people live in vehicles throughout the city of Santa Cruz.
Further, Sonnenfeld said neither he nor any other members of Santa Cruz YIMBY had heard from councilmembers in advance the vote, and he believes it’s a further sign they aren’t interested in public discussion on the matter. He hopes that the city will move forward with offering services to vehicle dwellers, but feels the current ordinance is destructive to immediate effects.
“The criminalization of vehicle-based shelter is extremely problematic,” he said. “We’ll end up with more people sleeping in tents, in alleys and in doorways.”
Local organizer Kayla Kumar agreed, noting that the ordinance is “short-sighted” and “intends to harm the unhoused, or make their lives as difficult as possible so they’ll leave.”
“Every time they do this, I feel punched in the stomach — it’s really clear they are taking away the option [to live in your vehicle] without providing sufficient substitutes,” she said.
Kumar, who works with the unhoused directly through Santa Cruz Cares and Sanitation for the People, said the ordinance is just “political theater,” as it is not built to withstand the associated legal challenges that could arise.
“The CSSO (Camping Services and Standards Ordinance) said you can’t ban people until you stand up social services, and this ordinance is different,” she said. “What’s actually going to work here? They have no intention of [putting these services into effect] before the ordinance, much less after.”
Could there be legal pushback?
As Kumar mentioned, the ordinance itself could already be dead in the water from a legal standpoint, even with the majority vote from the city council.
Bill Freeman, senior counsel of the ACLU of Northern California, and Peter Gelblum, chair of the Santa Cruz County Chapter of the ACLU of Northern California, have seen ordinances like this in other municipalities in this part of the state, which have been brought to court.
“It seems as though the community takes the view that if we make life difficult enough for people in our town, we can just make them move somewhere else,” Freeman said. “It’s clearly designed to target vehicles used for habitation, and it’s very problematic for interfering with people’s fundamental rights.”
In Pacifica and Mountain View, similar ordinances contain language that is formulated around “traffic prohibitions.” Freeman believes the Santa Cruz ordinance doesn’t even have the pretense of focusing on traffic safety, noting the hours the city would ban the vehicles as a clear sign.
They’re not even trying to hide what the driving force behind this is. The city seems to be going on a ‘punishment first, solutions later’ track, which is very problematic, and clearly open to challenge.
“They’re not even trying to hide what the driving force behind this is,” he said. “The city seems to be going on a ‘punishment first, solutions later’ track, which is very problematic, and clearly open to challenge.”
Gelblum said he believes, even with the required second reading, the ordinance will be passed with the same 5-2 vote. Once it goes into effect, Gelblum said many of those affected will have “no place to go,” with many current safe parking options requiring current registration and license, which many vehicle dwellers cannot afford.
“They don’t need to enact this ordinance to punish people,” he said. “It’s completely superfluous — it’s so clear that the reason for this ordinance is to get rid of people living in their RVs, they just don’t want them in the city anymore.”
‘You’ve got to park somewhere’
For the vehicle dwellers along Delaware Avenue and Shaffer Road — let alone throughout the city — there’s still too much uncertainty to adequately assess next steps.
Roy, a 61-year-old Santa Cruz native and veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, has searched for housing to no avail throughout the city, and doesn’t know what option he would have should the ordinance go into effect.
“I needed a place to stay; I am homeless, but I don’t feel like I am, because I have my home right here,” he said. ““I just want to have a place where I can park my trailer — we’ll be off their grid, the whole nine yards...you’ve got to park it somewhere.”
Rose, who has lived along Shaffer Road for the last four months, lost her family home in last summer’s CZU fire, and moved into a trailer after she was passed over for FEMA assistance. She’s also been looking for permanent housing for herself and her father — who lives in a hotel in Watsonville — but the harassment from volunteers and the consistent ticketing leaves her at a loss.
“I’m looking for a place, obviously, but I don’t know what I would do,” she said. “It’s been a long year.”