Tents and bikes at a homeless encampment by the San Lorenzo River
A scene from a homeless encampment in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz proposes law to end camping in parks, beaches and downtown areas inhabited by homeless people

The proposed ordinance the Santa Cruz City Council will consider on Tuesday would ban camping and outdoor living in a large part of the city. If passed, it isn’t “going to solve the homelessness crisis that we have, but it will be one tool that we can use,” one city official says.

Santa Cruz leaders are considering new, sweeping restrictions on where unsheltered people are allowed to live.

A proposed ordinance would make “outdoor living” unlawful in large swaths of the city, including downtown and on city beaches. The law, introduced during a news conference on Friday morning, is set to be discussed during a city council meeting on Tuesday.

The proposal is meant to set “conditions, time and manner” that determine where and when people experiencing homelessness can set up tents and live in encampments.

Neighborhood parks, parking lots, most open spaces, as well as city-owned beaches and oceanfront areas would be off-limits, according to a city map. The law also would prohibit camping in areas deemed dangerous to due to environmental sensitivities, fire risk, or other health and safety hazards.

A map of areas within Santa Cruz where camping would be prohibited under a new outdoor living ordinance.
A map of areas within Santa Cruz where camping would be prohibited under an outdoor living ordinance the city council is set to discuss on Tuesday.
(Courtesy city of Santa Cruz)

Mixed responses were emerging Friday afternoon as residents and homeless advocates began to digest the proposed law, which does permit camping in limited parts of the city between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. Those parts include sidewalks outside of no-camping zones, as well as open spaces that are not within 75 feet of recreation trails.

In those areas, tents would need to be picked up during daytime and evening hours, with exceptions for cold-weather conditions and for people with disabilities. Additionally, there would be vast limitations on what property unsheltered people can keep — tires, flammable materials, bike parts and improperly discarded hypodermic needles would all be banned.

Certain parts of the ordinance — which would take effect 30 days after city council approval — would not be enforced until there is a program in place for unsheltered people to store their belongings during the day; this is in the works, according to the city. It also includes provisions to delay widespread enforcement until the COVID-19 pandemic ebbs.

“It attempts to put very specific regulations in in a sensitive way — using warnings, requiring a belongings storage program in the city before certain parts can be enforced, etc. That said, it would take a ton of enforcement to have this mostly followed,” said Sibley Simon, an affordable housing developer who has been involved with local homeless issues for decades.

“My conclusion is that this will have some change on the negative effects of homelessness on the community as a whole and exactly where and when camping is visible. But it won’t cause a reduction in any of those things. Just a change,” Simon said.

Volunteers who work with unsheltered populations expressed more urgent concerns.

“The 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. ban on tents is the most inhumane of their proposals and shows that those proposing it have never lived outside,” said Keith McHenry of Food Not Bombs. “First, who knows when it’s 8 a.m. or 8 p.m.? Few [unhoused] people have phones, and when they do, they can’t charge them.”

The daytime camping restrictions wouldn’t be enforced until all people experiencing homelessness have access to a free COVID-19 vaccine, Planning Director Lee Butler said.

At last count, there were 1,200 unhoused people in the city, 865 of them unsheltered, 2019 city estimates show. That accounts for 55% of Santa Cruz County’s total homeless population, according to the city. It’s unclear whether that number has increased amid the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

The new ordinance comes on the heels of a series of homelessness-related issues facing the city. Last month, a federal judge issued an order that prevents the city from closing a homeless encampment at San Lorenzo Park, in part due to concerns about the virus’ spread; that camp would be allowed to stay until that order is lifted. A status hearing in the case is set for next month.

Also, in order to begin the widening of Highway 1 in April, a separate, large homeless encampment on the state right-of-way near Highways 1 and 9 also must be cleared out.

“The ordinance that has been drafted and that will be presented on Tuesday is not going to solve the homelessness crisis that we have, but it will be one tool that we can use in addressing some of the negative effects that we’ve seen of camping,” city Planning Director Lee Butler said during Friday’s news conference.

The number of deaths in the county also went up by about 13% compared to last year, but homeless people died at more...

Butler and other city officials seemed intent to show the city is trying to be as humane as possible in grappling with the hot-button issue.

“We have to make sure there is a standard of living in this community that we can all agree to, and that we all can enjoy so that the open spaces all over — our city beaches, the parks, the downtown area — are free for all people use, whether you’re housed or unhoused,” Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills said, adding that his officers recently reached out to every homeless person in the city to help connect them with resources.

“This is a long time coming in the process,” Mills said, noting how police have been unable to crack down on camping because the city has not had a camping ordinance for the last year and a half.

Santa Cruz had approved a similar camping ordinance before, which banned camping in all parts of the city. But that ordinance was overturned because it was not enforceable under a court ruling that makes it illegal for cities to prosecute camping when there is no shelter space available.

Santa Cruz County’s shelters have been at capacity or nearly full for months, which is another of McHenry’s main problems with it. "[That city officials] claim they will direct people to the already-full shelter locations that everyone on the streets already know about also shows a disconnect with reality,” the Food Not Bombs founder said.

Police would enforce the ordinance by first issuing warnings, then giving citations to those who are in violation of the rules. The maximum fine would be $20, but violators could complete community service in lieu of paying, according to city officials. If a person receives two citations within a 30-day period, they could be arrested. However, Mills said the goal is not to jail people who are homeless.

“It’s very unlikely that somebody is going to go to jail on one of these offenses. So I don’t expect to see incarceration rates rise,” he said.

Besides introducing the ordinance, city officials also said they’re trying to work with the state transportation department on how to proceed with clearing out the large homeless encampment alongside Highways 1 and 9. The busy intersection is in the city limits, but is state property, so state highway officials need permission from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office in order to sweep the encampment.

On Thursday, Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers sent a letter to Newsom, urging him to approve the request and provide greater financial assistance to help mitigate Santa Cruz’s homelessness crisis.

“We are also requesting that the state really think about long-term funding, sustainable funding — moving away from one-time funding to really address the crisis that is striking California, that has the largest homeless population in the United States at over 150,000 people,” Meyers said Friday.

County supervisors are also urging the state to provide additional relief and funding.

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  • General
    Make Your Voice Heard
    The Santa Cruz City Council will be discussing the proposed “outdoor living” ordinance on Tuesday, Feb. 23. There will be an opportunity for public comment. In addition, the city has posted the ordinance and FAQs on its website, and is accepting feedback from the community.