An activist holds a "homeless is not a crime" sign, in front of City Hall on Tuesday night.
An activist holds a “homeless is not a crime” sign, in front of City Hall on Tuesday night.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Government

Santa Cruz OKs controversial, sweeping changes to where homeless can live, but implementation to be delayed

Before Tuesday’s meeting, the city again received more than 700 pages of written comments about the proposed ‘outdoor living’ ordinance. Hours before it was discussed, several dozen people rallied outside Santa Cruz City Hall in protest.

Santa Cruz City Council members early Wednesday approved an “outdoor living ordinance” that has been the subject of vigorous community debate for weeks — but many more changes to the law will need to be approved before it can take effect.

After hearing comments from more than five dozen people and seeing dozens gather outside City Hall to protest the proposed sweeping changes on where homeless people can live, council members accepted the ordinance in its original form around 1 a.m. But the council’s action also created a laundry list of changes that will prompt city staff to bring a revised version to the council at its April 13 meeting.

The law can’t be implemented until after those amendments are voted on twice. The first vote is set for the April 13 meeting, with the date for the second vote to be determined. The ordinance can’t be enforced until after 30 days have passed from the date of final approval.

Approved by a 5-2 vote (council members Sandy Brown and Justin Cummings voted “no”), the ordinance prohibits camping in most of Santa Cruz, including downtown, city beaches, neighborhoods, open spaces, parks, fire- and flood-prone locations and some environmentally sensitive regions. City officials say certain parts of those areas have been overrun by crime, fire and safety hazards associated with unsupervised, “entrenched” encampments.

If the city council approves the amendments, it would leave a few stretches open where unsheltered people could camp. Those include industrial areas on the far Westside, around Harvey West Park and in Seabright, as well as along parts of Soquel Avenue, Mission Street, Ocean Street and Water Street. The city could also designate specific areas or lots as permitted camping areas.

Given the lengthy debate and late hour in which the final vote occurred, some details — including how to fund programs in particular parts of the ordinance — remained unclear Wednesday morning.

A crowd of around 100 people gathered in front of City Hall to voice their concerns about homeless issues on March 9, 2021.
A crowd of around 100 people gathers in front of Santa Cruz City Hall on March 9, 2021, to protest the city’s camping ordinance.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The changes to be voted on in April 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 “managed encampment” for unsheltered people at 1220 River Street, and 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.
  • Creating maps to show where people who are unsheltered can camp and sleep.
  • 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.

Another delay that already had been written into the ordinance made it unenforceable until the city has a program in place that would provide unsheltered people with a place to store their belongings. The ordinance is unlikely to be implemented until late May, but enforcement on daytime camping restrictions could begin even later than that.

The “temporary outdoor living ordinance,” also known as the “camping ordinance,” has been through multiple versions since it was first unveiled in February. Even before the city council gave it a first read on Feb. 23, city staff made tweaks and recommended changes in response to hundreds of public comments.

When the city council did give initial approval to the law, it included several key revisions, such as the addition of a “safe sleeping program” for at least 150 people; making social-service outreach efforts part of the enforcement process and placing residential areas off-limits for outdoor living.

Jose Dante Espinosa, 34, was taken into custody Tuesday in the area of San Lorenzo Park near Soquel Avenue on a charge...

Before Tuesday’s meeting, the city again received more than 700 pages of public comment about the law. Hours before the ordinance was discussed, several dozen people rallied outside Santa Cruz City Hall in protest.

At 8:08 p.m., 98 community members were lined up in the virtual meeting to share their thoughts. The vast majority of those who spoke on Tuesday said they were against the ordinance, but for varying reasons: Some said it went to far in restricting places where homeless people could live and did too little to provide them with services; others said it didn’t go far enough to protect communities and natural areas from homelessness-related issues.

For example, residents from around Arana Gulch and other open spaces said camping in those spaces would result in the destruction of habitats and a heightened risk of fires being started. In response to those concerns, city leaders proposed making the aforementioned change, to rule out natural areas as viable camping spots, at the April meeting.

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Others argued the city should spend its time and money to meet the needs of its homeless residents, instead of working on an ordinance that might be ineffective and could end up in a costly legal battle.

“While I appreciate the city’s effort to attempt to tackle this complex issue, the approach taken with this ordinance is not helpful,” said Rafael Sonnenfeld, who was a member of the city’s Community Advisory Committee on Homelessness, which issued recommendations on how the city should face the issue. (Lookout reported over the weekend how the ordinance didn’t square with some of the committee’s recommendations.)

“Not only do I believe this ordinance is unconstitutional, and will open the city to further civil liability, but it will not be effective in managing camping in a meaningful way,” Sonnenfeld added. “There’ll be so many violations of this ordinance that will be impossible to enforce fairly and consistently.”

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)

Said Edward Estrada, president of the College Democrats at UC Santa Cruz: “Many of us are only a couple of paychecks away from homelessness in this county, with its extreme housing costs,” Estrada said. “This ordinance does not fix homelessness, it only pushes the homeless population out of sight, out of mind, while criminalizing their existence and survival.”

City leaders have continuously reiterated that the ordinance is not meant to fix homelessness, but is meant to reduce negative side effects, such as litter, crime and fire and safety hazards, that are associated with “entrenched” encampments.

In order to avoid running afoul of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling in Martin v. Boise, the city cannot place an outright ban on camping if there are no realistic alternative shelter options available. But city officials say they can legally designate areas where living outdoors is prohibited so long as certain areas are still accessible.

There are more than 800 unsheltered people in Santa Cruz, and county shelters have been at or near capacity for months.

Some county-operated shelters are also expected to close in coming months, as COVID-19 relief funding for homelessness response dries up. To address those issues, the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved two measures aimed at building shelter bad capacity countywide, though how to fund the entirety of at least one of those programs could prove challenging.

Updates:

10:11 AM, Mar. 10, 2021: This story has been updated to clarify who voted for the camping ordinance on Wednesday. The Santa Cruz City Council took two votes late in the night — one to approve the original ordinance, and one to take up an amended version of the law at the April 13 meeting. Council member Sandy Brown was the lone “no” vote on the amendments.