Protesters at San Lorenzo Park in Santa Cruz on Dec. 28, 2020.
Protesters at San Lorenzo Park in Santa Cruz on Dec. 28, 2020, insisting that City Manager Martín Bernal rescind an executive order closing the park and clearing out a homeless encampment there.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Judge orders Santa Cruz to stop clearing San Lorenzo Park homeless encampment

The city of Santa Cruz was sued by homeless residents and the Santa Cruz Homeless Union on Wednesday morning over the city’s order demanding an encampment at San Lorenzo Park be cleared before Jan. 6. A judge approved the restraining order later in the day.

A judge granted a temporary restraining order Wednesday afternoon forcing the city of Santa Cruz to stop clearing a homeless encampment at San Lorenzo Park.

The decision from Magistrate Judge Susan Van Keulen came down after a group of homeless residents filed a lawsuit in federal court Wednesday morning — and just as the city was issuing new notices at San Lorenzo Park, telling campers to vacate within 72 hours.

The restraining order, which lasts until Jan. 6, demands that the city halt the closure of San Lorenzo Park and the nearby Benchlands encampments. After that, Van Keulen will have to decide whether to continue the restraining order as the lawsuit proceeds.

Wednesday’s order culminated days of protests by homeless advocates and community activists, who had held off police sweeps that were scheduled to begin this week. The complaint, filed around 8:30 a.m. Wednesday in the Northern District of California on behalf of the 150 or so homeless residents of the park, challenged the Dec. 17 executive order to close the park by City Manager Martín Bernal.

“Closure of San Lorenzo Park and the Benchlands, at this time, without providing adequate and available shelter space for every homeless individual has and will continue to result in the dispersal of a population already at greatly heightened risk for COVID-19,” the lawsuit said. “Already ... individuals previously encamped at San Lorenzo Park have been observed alone, sleeping in downtown doorways and in residential neighborhoods where they are at heightened risk, particularly in the case of homeless women.”

After the order was issued, city officials said it might curb efforts to help find temporary housing for those camped out at the park.

“Since the executive order on Dec. 17, the city has continued efforts to identify shelter resources, including working with the county to identify any available shelter beds, Project Roomkey rooms or spaces within the managed encampment at the Armory,” Santa Cruz spokesperson Elizabeth Smith said in a statement. “As of yesterday afternoon, the city had identified both funds and a location for motel vouchers for most campers in the park, with the distribution of those vouchers planned for Friday.

“However, given the temporary restraining order through Jan. 6, the City will not be distributing vouchers as planned. Independent of today’s judicial action, the City will be dismantling and removing the stolen fencing erected around the encampment and continuing patrols in the area to ensure public safety and continued access to the park.”

Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills was filmed on Tuesday telling a group of protesters that he was working to secure “dozens” of vouchers to shelter those who would be displaced by the park closure, but the city had not previously made details of the voucher program public. The fencing referenced in the statement was taken from nearby county property by protesters and used to form a barricade against police earlier this week.

Protestors hold up a fence in an effort to block Santa Cruz police officers from entering San Lorenzo Park
Protestors hold up a fence in an effort to block Santa Cruz police officers from entering San Lorenzo Park to clear out a homeless encampment on Dec. 28, 2020.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control strongly discourages the sweeping of homeless encampments during the pandemic, especially when there are no other shelter options available. “Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread,” the agency’s guidelines say.

County Health Officer Gail Newel and her staff weren’t consulted about the city’s decision, and “if we had been, we would have advised against this,” Newel wrote in an electronic message that was the subject of a recent Lookout report.

The city is going against those public health protocols and placing the homeless in “known or obvious danger,” violating their constitutional rights, the complaint says.

Among those suing the city is Santa Cruz Food Not Bombs, an organization that feeds and provides other basic needs to people experiencing homelessness, as well as San Lorenzo Park campers Alicia Avalos, Hannah Hegel, Chris Ingersoll and Randolph Tolley.

Those suing the city are seeking to stop the sweeps and to allow those displaced from San Lorenzo Park “and placed at vastly increased risk of harm” to return to the encampment. All of the problems the city cited in its executive order as justification for the park closure — issues which the suit calls “exaggerated” or “non-existent” — could be fixed without clearing the area, the complaint says.

“The closure of these homeless encampments will separate hundreds of people from an area where they have access to food, clothing, vital hygiene necessities and other support and the relative physical security of a community,” the filing says.

The lawsuit alleges that previous attempts by advocates and attorneys representing the homeless to stop the clearing of San Lorenzo Park were fruitless and that those requests went unanswered by the city.

For at least a month, San Lorenzo Park has been home to a large number of people who chose to stay put in downtown Santa Cruz after the Federal Emergency Management Agency ordered Santa Cruz County to move its homeless encampment out of the nearby Benchlands floodplain. The county relocated that camp to the Armory in DeLaveaga Park, and it is now completely full — as are all other shelter beds countywide, according to county officials.

Protesters on Monday formed a human wall and ultimately prevented Santa Cruz police from dispersing residents from parts of the San Lorenzo Park encampment. And groups of community activists kept showing up, every morning at 7 a.m., to keep law enforcement out and demand alternate shelter for those who would be displaced.

The days-long action stopped the second phase of a three-phase plan to shut down the park by Jan. 6 amid complaints that the encampment had grown unsafe.

Rather than clash with protesters and encampment residents, Mills said his department chose to deescalate the situation and delay action.

Anthony D. Prince is representing members of the Santa Cruz Homeless Union. The city’s attorney is Anthony P. Condotti, of Atchison, Barisone and Condotti law firm.