Reggie Meisler, an advocate for the unhoused, has a simple message for the California Coastal Commission members set to vote Thursday on the validity of Santa Cruz’s contentious oversized vehicle ordinance: Be wary. The city, he writes, has “had numerous opportunities to practice restraint” in ticketing and towing vulnerable people and has repeatedly proved itself untrustworthy. He says the ordinance is “discriminatory” and makes the lives of needy people worse.
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The City of Santa Cruz’s oversized vehicle ordinance (OVO), a discriminatory parking-permit program that threatens to increase ticketing and towing of people living in vehicles by regulating overnight parking, is going before the California Coastal Commission on Thursday.
The city has created a plan — a defense of the ordinance — and in response, Coastal Commission staff have expressed optimism and trust that the city will practice nuance and restraint in enforcement.
We don’t believe it.
In fact, we argue that this faith is unearned and will quickly prove foolhardy.
Over the past year and a half of contentious debate about the OVO, the City of Santa Cruz has had numerous opportunities to build trust with our unhoused population regarding ticketing and towing practice; to practice restraint toward those participating in the city’s safe parking programs or volunteer work programs like Downtown Streets Team; to not ticket or tow those with disabilities, with children, with language barriers, etc.
And yet, in just the past few months alone, we have witnessed and reported on a bombardment of green-tagging, ticketing and tow orders coming from the Santa Cruz Police Department, targeting all manner of extra-vulnerable people living in vehicles.
A member of the Downtown Streets Team, who received a detached trailer to live in from program administrators, parks on Delaware Avenue. Despite his commitment to the city program, SCPD continues to green-tag his trailer, making him feel existentially threatened. If OVO passes, parking his trailer on any city street, for any amount of time, would be criminalized.
Where should he park?
Santa Cruz Cares, to which I belong, gave money to a local musician living out of his van on Delaware Avenue so he could get his registration up to date. SCPD still towed his van for not passing a smog test — even though the DMV had given him an extension. He was left without any service outreach by the city, which is a violation of his constitutional rights à la Martin v. Boise. Other cities pay attention to this. Similarly, SCPD recently towed the recreational vehicle of an older woman, her adult daughter, and her teenage grandson after they parked on Delaware Avenue. They, too, were left without service outreach by the city.
These are not exceptional stories.
Since the mid-2000s, the City of Santa Cruz has had a “vehicle abatement hotline” and online reporting tool, which encourages housed neighbors to report vehicles to an abatement officer for issues as subjective and discriminatory as being a “public nuisance” or contributing to “general unsightliness.” In March 2022, the city allocated resources for the Homeless Response Action Plan to provide this program with another dedicated staff member, a “vehicle abatement contractor.”
This unaccountable complaint-based system has resulted in rampant, unlawful, targeted harassment of people in “unsightly vehicles,” and collusion between anti-houseless neighborhood groups and the SCPD in ticketing and towing the vehicles of unhoused residents.
Earlier this year, Santa Cruz Cares reported instances of SCPD abuse happening during our most severe atmospheric river storms. As Pajaro was flooding, and chunks of West Cliff Drive were falling into the sea, SCPD was still braving these dangerous storms — not to offer help to our unhoused neighbors in vehicles, or offer them space at a warming center or safe parking site, but to continuously green-tag their vehicles.
Our city’s animus against the unhoused isn’t coming from just SCPD.
City Manager Matt Huffaker recently attempted to circumvent the Coastal Commission’s authority and misuse an old coastal design permit (CP16-0045) to restripe parking spaces throughout the coastal zone to be too small for RVs, buses and cargo vans, targeting Delaware Avenue, Shaffer Road, Natural Bridges Drive and Mission Street Extension. This move by our city manager signals a desire to focus more on callous policies of banishment for our unhoused community than an effort to balance human needs with impacts.
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Last year, city staff rejected every OVO amendment offered by planning commissioners — including the idea that police have real-time data on shelter vacancies and waitlist rosters — a crucial component of accountability when the OVO claims it won’t ticket or tow people who have nowhere else to go.
The city claims that it has listened to our unhoused community in developing the OVO. A series of recent interviews by local journalist Tyler Silva seriously challenges that claim. We believe that all evidence demonstrates that, when it comes to balancing law enforcement with human need, the City of Santa Cruz just can’t be trusted to get it right.
Reggie Meisler is a member of local houseless advocacy group Santa Cruz Cares. His previous piece for Lookout appeared in February.