The homeless encampment at Highways 1 and 9 in Santa Cruz.
The homeless encampment at Highways 1 and 9 in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Widening inequity or major problem? The deeply divided public opinions on Santa Cruz’s homelessness ordinance

In all, there were more than 700 pages of written comments leading up to Tuesday’s meeting about the city of Santa Cruz’s proposed ‘outdoor living’ ordinance. And then doesn’t include the folks who spoke in front of the camera.

Robust debate accompanied a marathon Santa Cruz City Council meeting that stretched into the wee hours Wednesday, when the city council voted to give the first of two required approvals to a proposed ordinance banning outdoor living in many parts of the city.

In all, there were “over 700 pages of comment” leading up to Tuesday’s meeting, city spokesperson Elizabeth Smith told Lookout. City staff are still going through those comments, and there is no tally of how many people were in favor or against the ordinance, Smith said.

But comments made in person during this week’s virtual council meeting provide a window into how people on both sides of the issue feel about the ordinance, which will see a final vote on March 9.

Lookout sampled a handful of the more than four dozen comments that Santa Cruzans shared before council members began debating the ordinance. Here are views on both sides:

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OPPOSES THE ORDINANCE: Sabina Holber, Westside resident

“I want to state something really obvious: the solution for houseless individuals is to actually house them and not criminalize them. Everybody in your presentation kept talking about how this will not solve homelessness or houselessness, and we all agree on that issue. So, I want to know what the council is actually doing to solve these problems.”

SUPPORTS THE ORDINANCE: Beth Prentiss, social worker and Riverside renter

Prentiss said there is an encampment “literally on the other side of my back fence” that has created nuisance conditions, such as loud music, shouting, human waste in her yard and safety issues in her area.

“I am a queer woman and I have been harassed, walking with my partner,” Prentiss said. “These people who are opposed [to the ordinance] are talking about the exceptions that are proving the rule: that what’s going on is actually drug use and crime.”

OPPOSES: Stacey Falls, homeowner in the San Lorenzo Park area

“It’s such a confusing ordinance. If I want to camp someplace because I’m homeless, I have to consult with a meteorologist to know what the weather conditions are. And then I have to consult with some, like, biological expert who can tell me if the Ohlone beetles are having a mating season. And then I have to take a tape measure with me to make sure I’m 75 feet away from the trail? I mean, it’s crazy.”

SUPPORTS: Deborah Elston, resident living near San Lorenzo park and founder of “Santa Cruz Neighbors” community group

For senior citizens who moved to the area around San Lorenzo Park because it was peaceful but close to downtown, the encampment at San Lorenzo Park greatly affects the quality of life, Elston said.

“Now they are lucky if they get to sleep through the night or even feel safe,” she said. “They are living across from a nuisance property.”

OPPOSES: Mark Lewis, longtime Santa Cruz resident

“The homeless, whom by and large, do not have the requisite connectivity, digital literacy or digital tools to vigorously defend themselves have been disenfranchised by the virtual process. Unable to be heard, made invisible, as if their voices do not matter.”

Lewis asked council members to hold off on voting on the camping ordinance until council chambers or an alternative area could be opened for in-person participation.

SUPPORTS: Tiffany Worthington, Riverside Avenue resident

Worthington said she has seen unsheltered people cause disruptions overnight, and vomit and defecate into yards in the neighborhood. “This is nightly. It’s serious,” she said.

To address the issue of human waste, Worthington proposed the city offer portable toilets and hand washing stations, like those that were set up to aid residents in the Last Chance area during the wildfires.

OPPOSES: Rachel Chavez, nurse

“If passed, this ordinance will further the already drastic inequity in our community by criminalizing some of our most vulnerable residents,” and by worsening social determinants of health for unsheltered people — “a harbinger of inequity” — placing the ordinance out of line with the city’s Health In All Policies initiative, Chavez said.

SUPPORTS: Patricia Unruhe, Watsonville educator and downtown resident for 25 years

“Right now, there are many areas in Santa Cruz that are no longer accessible to the general public because they’ve been taken over by permanent campers,” she said. Earlier this month, Unruhe said she was out for a run when a man camped out on the sidewalk in her neighborhood threatened to kill her.

Unruhe’s husband is a parks worker for the city, and she said he has seen firsthand the impacts of cleaning up camps and trash on a weekly basis — such as city workers being injured by homeless people and getting stuck by improperly discarded syringes, she said.

OPPOSES: Nancy Krusoe, a longtime volunteer for homeless service programs

The ordinance “criminalizes homelessness, denies stability and security, and offers nothing beneficial,” Krusoe said, criticizing certain requirements as “unreasonably complicated” and burdensome for homeless residents, especially those who are elderly or have disabilities. “We know encounters with law enforcement produce profoundly negative consequences for homeless individuals.”

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TORN: Anna Brooks, Santa Cruz renter and former administrative assistant at the city

Brooks said during the council meeting she changed her stance on the ordinance after seeing how unwilling community members were to compromise on a place for a permanent homeless shelter.

“With a heavy heart, and great hesitancy, I support the ordinance,” she said. “The Santa Cruz community has failed to come together and agree upon where to put a permanent shelter. If enough camping occurs in residential areas, perhaps residents will be compelled to advocate more productively.”