Santa Cruz must end unlawful harassment of people living in vehicles

a parking ticket on an RV parked on Delaware Avenue on the Westside of Santa Cruz
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Activist Reggie Meisler — along with 11 local organizations and 38 activists — says the City of Santa Cruz is issuing unlawful parking tickets and illegitimate abandoned-vehicle notices that unfairly target people living in vehicles along Delaware Avenue and surrounding streets near Natural Bridges State Beach. The city, he charges, does not have proper permission from the California Coastal Commission to limit parking in these areas. “These parking signs,” he concludes, “should be unenforceable.” He wants the city to stop this practice, which puts an unfair burden on those who are most needy.

The City of Santa Cruz employs a wide variety of tools to harass people living in tents and vehicles — frivolous tickets, verbal intimidation, and even physical force — but did you know that some of these forms of harassment are actually unlawful?

Many residents who live in their vehicles park their homes on the far west end of Delaware Avenue. Although the city continues to post “No Parking: Midnight to 6AM” signs along the 2100 block of Delaware Avenue and beyond, this area, along with neighboring streets, including Shaffer Road, Natural Bridges Drive and parts of Mission Street Extension, are within a region known as the “coastal zone.” Without acquiring a special kind of regulatory approval known as a “coastal development permit,” these parking signs should be unenforceable.

As recently as Feb. 3, people parked along Delaware Avenue have reported that the Santa Cruz Police Department continues to ticket them for ostensibly violating these posted parking signs, although the city has no coastal development permit for them. Each ticket levies a fine of $48.00 on vehicle residents of little or no means.

Local advocates and I have sent multiple emails to City Manager Matt Huffaker, Police Chief Bernie Escalante and the city council regarding these illegal citations, but have not received a response.

A map showing the coastal zone over which the California Coast Commission has jurisdiction
Areas in light blue are the “coastal zone.” Areas in dark blue are within the “appealable” region of the coastal zone, meaning that projects developed there may be appealed to the California Coastal Commission.
(Via Reggie Meisler)

According to the Coastal Commission’s website, the city could be charged fines ranging from $1,000 to $15,000 for each erroneous ticket it has given out.

In addition to issuing illegal tickets to vehicle owners parked in the coastal zone, the city also employs another, more subtle tool of harassment, known as “green-tagging.”

A green tag warning denoting that a vehicle has been reported as "abandoned."
(Via Reggie Meisler)

These bright green notices posted on vehicles are not formal citations, but a warning that a vehicle has been reported as “abandoned.” While green tags might not levy a fine, they represent a serious danger to our neighbors living in vehicles, as green tags attempt to assert the city’s right to expedite the process of towing someone’s vehicle. Normally, a tow order is given only after someone has accrued at least five unpaid parking tickets or someone’s vehicle registration has lapsed for over six months. Green tags, however, attempt to circumvent this process through a series of interpretations of state and local law. While many who receive green tags do manage to avoid being towed by relocating their vehicle within the 72-hour window, those who might miss this notice — or whose vehicles are in need of gas, repairs or updated paperwork — are faced with the serious risk of our city taking their shelter away. Beyond the concerning paradigm of how green tags are used to fast forward the process of removing people from their shelter, we are also concerned about how brazenly unaccountable the police are in giving them out.

Many people have spoken to me and other advocates for unhoused people about receiving green tags within just hours of parking somewhere — even while they are occupying their vehicle. Some vehicle residents have even reported that, rather than making a good faith effort to determine if their vehicle is occupied before placing a notice on it, police officers actually “sneak up” on their vehicle, in hopes of tagging it without being detected.

In one case, a vehicle resident reported getting out of their vehicle and asking the officer why they were being given an abandoned vehicle notice. The officer responded, “Someone called on your vehicle” and then promptly left, without offering to rescind the notice, despite verifiable evidence that the vehicle was not, in fact, abandoned. Even while our county made declarations of emergency and sections of West Cliff Drive were falling into the sea from devastating winter storms, police were still planting green tags on the vehicles of our most vulnerable residents. Upon discovery of these notices, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the city detailing why these green tags are unlawful and unenforceable.

Both the enforcement of parking signs on Delaware Avenue and the practice of illegitimate green-tagging demonstrate a pattern of selective and unlawful harassment of vehicle residents by the City of Santa Cruz. I — with the support of dozens of local advocates and organizations — condemn these discriminatory practices, which squander public resources to further criminalize poverty in our city.

While we recognize the city’s interest in preventing and managing dumping, pollution and other harmful behaviors, there are many, far more equitable and effective interventions to improve these issues.

A dumpster on Delaware Avenue on the Westside of Santa Cruz
A dumpster on Delaware Avenue on the Westside of Santa Cruz.
(Via Reggie Meisler)

The city’s recent placement of trash receptacles along Delaware Avenue for example, provides marginalized folks with very few resources a cost-effective way of managing waste and keeping their areas clean.

We wholeheartedly support more resource-based interventions like this one. The city must end its unlawful harassment campaign targeting vehicle residents, and at the same time, it must also answer for the harms it has already committed by offering reparations to those ticketed and towed as part of these illegal practices.

The city has records of tickets and tow orders issued. Each of these notes the location of a vehicle at the time of citation and the legal code used to cite or tow, as well as enough personal information on the vehicle owner that the city, with a little effort, could at least attempt to provide victims with some manner of reparations. Although the harm produced in towing someone’s home, or making someone feel existentially threatened, is unquantifiable, we believe the city must be held responsible.

We have created a petition outlining these demands. Eleven local organizations and 38 local activists have endorsed it.

The city must end its unlawful harassment of our unhoused neighbors, provide reparations for those harmed by these practices, and recommit to resource-based interventions.

Reggie Meisler is a software developer who got involved in advocacy through the Democratic Socialists of America in 2018 by providing aid to people living in tents at the Ross Camp. He has lived in Santa Cruz for nine years and currently lives on the Eastside. He works with a broad coalition of allies to protect the right of the poor to simply exist. He believes that housing is a human right, and that no one should be criminalized for being poor.

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