An industrial portion of Santa Cruz's Seabright neighborhood in March 2021.
An industrial section of Santa Cruz’s Seabright neighborhood in March 2021.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)
Housing

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

After much community backlash, Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers said she will bring forth a proposal to remove the industrial zone of the Seabright neighborhood from places where overnight camping is allowed on public property.

Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers said Monday she will bring forward a proposal next week asking the city council to ban overnight camping in public parts of the Seabright neighborhood’s industrial zone.

The move comes a day after Meyers spoke for about an hour with dozens of Seabright neighbors and business owners who peppered her with questions and criticism over the city’s “temporary outdoor living ordinance” that passed in early March. Many had only recently learned of the ordinance, which would allow unsheltered people to camp overnight on public property in a small commercial stretch in Seabright, among a handful of other areas. The ordinance bans camping in most other parts of Santa Cruz, including downtown.

“I also just said ‘Look, this is a really, really, really complicated issue and it’s very hard to find an appropriate site to do what we’re trying to do anywhere in the city because everywhere we look there is a neighborhood, there is a business district, there is a school,’” Meyers told Lookout on Monday. “So my intention yesterday was to help them understand that the city doesn’t have a whole lot of resources. ... This is just a really hard public policy situation, and we need to make it as clear as possible and that was my intent — just to be there, to be available.”

Although camping is prohibited in residential neighborhoods and on private property under the law, and daytime camping will also be unlawful, many Seabright residents and businesses became irate at the thought of the homeless setting up tents on public sidewalks near local stores and restaurants.

Under the ordinance as now approved, portions of Seabright Avenue, between Hall Street and Marine Parade, would have camping-friendly areas, as well as segments of Watson, Bronson and Hall streets. That means people experiencing homelessness could sleep on public property from one hour before sunset until 8 a.m.

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But on April 13, the city council is set to adopt a slate of amendments to the ordinance, and Meyers plans to pitch removing the Seabright industrial area from the list of places where camping is permitted overnight.

Once the law goes into effect, it is likely to only include two industrial areas — in the far Westside and in the Harvey West area — and each of the primary commercial corridors: Mission Street, Ocean Street, Water Street and Soquel Avenue.

Complaints from Seabright neighbors — about health and safety risks, and tents becoming an eyesore in the community — mirror those of residents in parts of Santa Cruz where overnight camping was initially allowed.

A rough draft of a map created by Santa Cruz Planning Director Lee Butler to show areas where camping would be permitted.
A rough draft of a map created by Santa Cruz Planning Director Lee Butler to show areas where camping would be permitted under the final version of the outdoor living ordinance. The city council is set to consider more changes to the law in April.
(city of Santa Cruz, via Google Maps)

At first, public sidewalks in residential neighborhoods were OK for overnight sleeping, as were some wildlife areas. But in the weeks since the ordinance was unveiled in February, the city council has placed many of those areas off-limits in response to concerns from residents, and officials plan to remove even more areas later this month.

Since a 2018 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling made blanket camping bans unconstitutional when there is no other place for a homeless person to sleep — and Santa Cruz County-funded shelters are routinely full — the city must allow camping somewhere.

The other changes to be voted on next week include:

  • Prohibiting camping in “open spaces,” such as Arana Gulch and the Pogonip, that had been previously on the list of places where unsheltered people could live.
  • Directing the city manager to open a new “managed encampment” for unsheltered people at 1220 River Street, and to look into the possibility of more transitional encampments in the city.
  • Exploring the creation of a “restorative justice” diversion program to allow those who violate the ordinance to avoid jail time and citations.
  • Adding more oversight and data collection efforts to determine how effective the ordinance is, and what the costs associated with it are.
  • Crafting more narrow definitions for what behaviors would constitute a misdemeanor offense, and adding in protections to prevent the arrests of homeless families with children.
  • Delaying implementation of the ordinance until Santa Cruz County reaches the yellow tier of COVID-19 transmission and risk, or U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on homeless encampments during COVID-19 changes, whichever comes first.
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The hubbub in Seabright over the outdoor living ordinance has echoed previous comments from other Santa Cruz residents and even council members, who felt the law was rushed to a vote without enough public input.

Meyers acknowledged that many Seabright residents and business owners — even people she has known for years — felt blindsided by the ordinance, especially since it had passed by the time it came to light in the neighborhood.

“It’s confusing and I regret that. It is a hard and difficult process to put a complicated policy like this together,” she told Lookout.

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Meyers said there were strategic public engagement processes on homelessness over the years, including as part of the city’s Community Advisory Committee on Homelessness, which made recommendations on how best to handle homelessness.

However, the city did not do a robust public input process before the outdoor living ordinance went up for a vote. Meyers said if city officials had done so, the ordinance would have died before reaching a vote, due to the resistance from various neighborhood groups and other constituents.

“If we had done community engagement probably first in this process — which we could’ve done, we could’ve stood up a whole process around that — to be honest, I don’t think we would’ve ever ended up with an ordinance,” she said.

The fate of the approved law is still in limbo anyway, since city leaders are likely to continue modifying the ordinance and a formal checkpoint has been set nine months after it does into effect, Meyers said.