In the Public Interest: A new law-and-order approach to homelessness in Santa Cruz?

A Food Not Bombs gathering in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In this installment of In the Public Interest, Lookout politics and policy correspondent Christopher Neely examines what changes might be ahead in how the City of Santa Cruz handles Food Not Bombs’ gatherings and the long-debated issue of oversized vehicles parking on city streets.

This story was originally featured in this week’s In the Public Interest newsletter from Christopher Neely. Be first the first to hear about politics and policy news in Santa Cruz County — sign up for Christopher’s email newsletter here.

The City of Santa Cruz completed the highly publicized clearout of the Benchlands homeless encampment in November. Among the biggest storylines out of that process was how few unhoused Benchlands residents accepted the city’s offer of services. Of the 241 people evicted from the bank along the San Lorenzo River, only 78 accepted shelter. It now seems likely that many of the people living in the Benchlands have moved to Pogonip.

As the city cleared the encampment, Fred Keeley was out stumping for mayor, talking about plans for a 2024 bond that would finance affordable housing, and new navigation centers and permanent supportive housing for the houseless community. This proposal fit his mantra: The city owns the brick-and-mortar side of homelessness response, the county provides services.

Since the Benchlands clearing, the city has not announced any comprehensive plan to address homelessness beyond the status quo: offering shelter space at the armory, sending outreach teams to known encampments, operating a sanctioned encampment, and working with the county and nonprofits on services.

However, Keeley tells me the status quo has long been imbalanced. Law enforcement, he says, has been too hands-off and have learned to overlook open air drug trade, vandalism, and other behavior.

“The compassion meter of residents in the city is dropping like a stone when it comes to homelessness,” Keeley said. “It’s a different day in Santa Cruz now. It’s a different city council and a different administration.”

What does that mean? Well, the city appears to be preparing subtle yet more assertive shifts in its approach to homelessness that could play out in highly visible ways over the coming months.

Enter Food Not Bombs. Since March 2020, the organization has held a daily gathering at the downtown town clock, where it offers a hot lunch to the local unhoused population. Some in the community have bristled against Food Not Bombs’ steady presence. This includes Keeley and other city officials, who have grown impatient with the organization’s refusal to obtain the necessary city permits for handling food and taking over a public space.

Keith McHenry of Food Not Bombs at a protest in Santa Cruz in January 2022.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Keith McHenry, the mercurial leader of the global organization’s local chapter, says the disinterest in permits is an act of resistance. He says the gathering is technically a protest (against militarization) and protected under the First Amendment. Food Not Bombs has a global policy to “never request or accept permission to serve free food to the public.” Ideologically, that is difficult to argue with in a world where so many are hungry.

Yet, after years of support, Second Harvest Food Bank voted last week to end its relationship with Food Not Bombs. When asked about the vote by email, Second Harvest Chair Michele Bassi wrote that “due to the appeal timeframe that is allowed to Food Not Bombs, it is not Second Harvest Food Bank’s policy to comment on relationships with partner organizations.” In a follow-up email, she cited concerns over compliance with federal regulations related to the USDA’s The Emergency Food Assistance Program.

The move comes at an interesting time: Last Friday was Food Not Bombs’ final weekday gathering for the foreseeable future — possibly forever — as the organization transitions to weekends only. McHenry says the timing is pure coincidence and Second Harvest’s decision will have no measurable impact on his operation.

What might have an impact is a renewed interest in enforcing the permit issue, something Keeley sounds open to.

“There’s not another set of laws for Food Not Bombs just because they’re anarchists,” Keeley said. He said categorizing the gathering as a protest is “a stretch.” However, Food Not Bombs has taken jurisdictions to court before, and any attempt to move it from the town clock will likely spur a First Amendment lawsuit.

The timing here is not coincidental. After three years, the St. Francis Soup Kitchen will reopen in the coming weeks to provide daily hot meals to the needy. McHenry told me Food Not Bombs always planned to transition back to weekends when St. Francis reopened. Keeley says the presence of another, permitted soup kitchen downtown makes it easier to turn up the heat on Food Not Bombs.

RVs line a street on Santa Cruz's Westside
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The outsized debate over the oversized vehicle issue is embarking on a new chapter as well. The ordinance that sought to prohibit recreational vehicles and campers from lining mostly Westside streets remains in limbo with the California Coastal Commission; however, the city might have found a way around it.

Last week, City Manager Matt Huffaker announced a plan to repaint the parking stalls in an RV/camper hot spot: along Delaware Avenue, Natural Bridges Drive, Shaffer Road, Mission Street Extension and Western Drive. The new parking spots would be too small for most RVs to legally fit. The city began notifying the neighborhood about its plan on March 13.

The city finds its authority to do this without a public process based on a coastal development permit it received for a similar project in 2016. However, Reggie Meisler, who works with Santa Cruz Cares, appealed this move, which means the proposal must be approved by the Transportation and Public Works Commission at a public meeting on April 17.

“It is a pretty brazen move by the city,” Meisler tells me.

Councilmember Sandy Brown says she supports the new “benign” way of addressing the long-debated oversized vehicle issue, but laments what she sees as wasted money, time and “community goodwill” in battling the original ordinance.

That’s not all. Keeley also wants to target drug dealing and open-air drug use. The lack of enforcement against drug dealing was something he expressed great frustration with while on the campaign trail. It’s part of what Keeley calls his “north star” in responding to the homelessness crisis: a focus on responding to behavior, not status, and ensuring everyone operates “under the same set of laws.”

“If there is a criminal behavior component to this, then we need a criminal justice response. Where there is a housing need component, we need a housing response,” Keeley said. “We can’t wait two years for bond money to come and do nothing about the rampant drug use.”

Of Note

An above-ground section of the Newell Creek pipeline.
(Via City of Santa Cruz)

Water problems: The Newell Creek pipeline, the Santa Cruz Water Department’s lifeline to the Loch Lomond Reservoir, had to be taken offline after steady beating from the three months of atmospheric rivers. The water department depends on Loch Lomond as its primary water supply during major storms, as the San Lorenzo River becomes too silted and filled with debris. The city has not said how long the project will take, but warned water cuts could be in place if the repairs take too long.

Bathroom problems: Santa Cruz County Supervisors Chair Zach Friend will write a letter to chambers of commerce across the county, asking their member businesses to open their restrooms for public use, as the county, hamstrung by staff and budget shortages, cannot afford to open and maintain any additional public restrooms on its own. This request follows the City of Santa Cruz’s program to pay local businesses to keep their restrooms open to the public.

Labor problems: On Tuesday, SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West union members will picket outside Dominican Hospital at 1555 Soquel Dr. The protest is part of a broader statewide protest at 26 health care facilities owned by Dignity Health. According to Renée Saldaña, spokesperson for SEIU-UHW, 77% of the union workers employed by Dignity Health said in a survey last year they were “severely or somewhat understaffed,” which puts patients and workers at risk. The picket line will call on Dignity Health to address the ongoing staffing issues.

Say It Again

“In case anyone has a problem with a Santa Cruz parking ticket, I know a legal way to challenge it and win. I’ve known this for years and I can reveal the secret here in front of council and [city counsel Tony Condotti]. It’s very effective, and I have done all the thorough legal research.”

— unidentified public commenter at the Santa Cruz City Council’s March 14 meeting, who did not, in fact, reveal the secret to successfully fighting parking tickets.

The Week Ahead

Santa Cruz City Council could approve the environmental report for Segments 8 and 9 of Coastal Rail Trail in a specially called meeting on Monday. It would allow construction to begin on a 2.2-mile stretch of the trail between the Pacific Avenue/Beach Street roundabout to the eastern side of 17th Avenue. This segment of the rail trail has drawn strong opposition from folks who argue the project removes too many trees. That debate will likely play out in the city council chambers Monday.

Demolition of the storm-ravaged pier at Seacliff State Beach will begin Monday. California State Parks announced its plans to demolish the pier in mid-February. The work is expected to take six weeks.

The next regularly scheduled meeting for each of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, Santa Cruz City Council and Watsonville City Council is Tuesday, March 28.

Weekly News Diet

Norma Estrada, Rafael Jimenez and their 9-year-old daughter, Xochitl Jimenez
Norma Estrada, Rafael Jimenez and their 9-year-old daughter, Xochitl Jimenez, have been staying with family in Watsonville since evacuating from Pajaro.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Local: The levee breach along the Pajaro River is a veritable disaster, forcing thousands of evacuations, disrupting school and causing millions in damage. My colleague Hillary Ojeda caught up with some of the evacuated families trying to get back home.

Golden State: Facebook’s parent company, Meta, announced last week that it would lay off another 10,000 workers and not fill 5,000 open positions. This means Meta has now announced 26,000 job cuts in less than five months. With the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank, and continued layoffs in the sector, a dark cloud seems to be looming over the tech industry. (Roland Li and Chase DeFeliciantonio for the San Francisco Chronicle)

Global: A push by French President Emmanuel Macron to increase the retirement age from 62 to 64 years old immediately became an existential question for the country’s residents, spurring nationwide protests and demonstrations. Last week, the issue evolved into a test of democracy. Sensing inadequate support from Parliament, Macron used a constitutional tool to unilaterally ram the legislation through without a vote. The only tool to stop it from becoming law was for Parliament’s opposition party to, within 24 hours, cast a vote of no confidence in Macron’s government, which would have forced Macron’s cabinet to resign. (New York Times)

One Great Read

“Shiny Objects: The Koh-i-noor, Rishi Sunak, and the aesthetics of anticolonialism” by Pranay Somayajula for The Drift

The 105.6-carat Koh-i-noor has sat in British hands since the 11-year-old Sikh emperor surrendered the jewel to Queen Victoria following his empire’s defeat in the 1849 Second Anglo-Sikh War. For the nearly two centuries since, the Koh-i-noor has stood as a shiny symbol of British colonialism’s stolen wealth.

The diamond has come back into the headlines recently, as calls to return the jewel to India have picked up following Queen Elizabeth II’s death, Rishi Sunak’s rise to U.K. prime minister, and Queen Consort Camilla’s initial plans to wear the Koh-i-noor in her crown during King Charles’ May 6 coronation (British officials have changed those plans to avoid friction with the Indian government). India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has led a recent effort to erase relics of the country’s colonial past. However, author Pranay Somayajula argues that Modi’s anticolonialism efforts, which include calls to return the Koh-i-noor, are superficial and have fueled far-right support for a Hindu ethnostate.

FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this newsletter incorrectly attributed comments from Second Harvest Food Bank Chair Michele Bassi. When asked about a vote on Second Harvest Food Bank’s relationship with Food Not Bombs, Bassi cited compliance with federal regulations related to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s The Emergency Food Assistance Program, not local food handling permits. Lookout regrets the error.


Be the first to know all the big, breaking news in Santa Cruz. Sign up to get Lookout alerts sent straight to your phone here or below.