Judge extends ban on breaking up San Lorenzo homeless camp for a week
“This is a community that has strong interests on both sides, and that is not lost on the court,” Magistrate Judge Susan van Keulen said Wednesday afternoon of the San Lorenzo Park situation.
A judge ruled Wednesday that the city of Santa Cruz must allow a homeless encampment at San Lorenzo Park to remain in place, at least for another week.
Magistrate Judge Susan van Keulen extended a temporary restraining order she had granted on Dec. 30, saying she needed more time to further review arguments and evidence presented by attorneys for the City of Santa Cruz and Anthony Prince, an attorney representing the local homeless persons union.
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“This is a community that has strong interests on both sides, and that is not lost on the court,” van Keulen said near the end of the 75-minute hearing. She also said she’ll decide on Jan. 13 whether to make a final ruling on the camp’s fate or further extend the order.
The hearing was the latest turn of events following a Dec. 17 executive order from Santa Cruz City Manager Martín Bernal. That order said San Lorenzo Park had reached an untenable state as a result of the 150-person homeless encampment there, and that the city would be closing the park by Jan. 6.
Bernal cited criminal activity, widespread trash, fire hazards, drug use and other hazardous conditions as the reason for the order.
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But after the first round of clearing in late December, protesters and homeless advocates organized against the city’s efforts, using fencing and their bodies to form a barricade and stop police sweeps. Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills told his officers to stand down in response.
Days later, a lawsuit was filed in federal court by homeless Santa Cruzans, and van Keulen issued the temporary restraining order, forcing the city the same day to stop its planned sweeps.
The central question argued by Prince and the city’s attorney, Cassie Bronson, on Wednesday was whether dispersing the camp would cause significant harm by putting the homeless — and the larger community — at greater risk during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Longterm management of Santa Cruz’s unsheltered population is not the issue before the court,” van Keulen emphasized in the hearing.
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.
City attorney Bronson said the CDC guidelines were well-intentioned but “not supported by any data we’re aware of.”
County Health Officer Gail Newel and her staff were not consulted about the clearing of the park before the city crafted its executive order in December. “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.
Because the city is going against those public health protocols, Prince argues the city is placing the homeless in “known or obvious danger,” and violating their constitutional rights.
Those pushing for the camp to remain at San Lorenzo Park also say many of the homeless feel safer when they live in one centralized location with people they know, instead of spread out across the city.
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With county homeless shelters at capacity, the only other option is a limited number of hotel vouchers for two- to five-night stays, which the city has the money to purchase but that don’t “really seem to have much of an impact in this situation,” van Keulen said.
With Wednesday’s extension, the San Lorenzo Park encampment won’t be forced to move for the next seven days. By Jan. 13, van Keulen will make a decision on whether the encampment can stay in the park, and for how long.