When the Santa Cruz City Council voted to pass the new law and allow overnight camping by homeless people in part of the iconic Seabright neighborhood, many homeowners and business owners said they had no clue it was coming.
When Santa Cruz passed its new ordinance restricting where and when people experiencing homelessness could camp overnight, most of the city was placed off limits. What remained accessible for camping are a few areas scattered citywide, including a small industrial zone in the tight-knit and proud residential neighborhood of Seabright.
Now — as the ordinance is being tweaked by the city council and awaits final implementation amid COVID-19 — word is getting around. And many Seabright homeowners and business owners are none too pleased.
“The small businesses, they’re just irate right now. They’re smoking hot,” said Richard Novak, founder of local skateboard company NHS and owner of the Seabright Cannery complex on Bronson Street.
Novak just learned of the ordinance — set to go into effect by the summer — a week ago. It was around that same time that Seabright residents started hearing about the law, imagining their sidewalks full of tents, and spreading the word to other neighbors.
Discussions proliferated on the neighborhood-based social media platform Nextdoor. And the concern culminated at a 100-plus-person community meeting in the parking lot of Day’s Market on Seabright Avenue and Watson Street on Sunday, according to organizer Paige Concannon, who has lived in Seabright for years and runs a neighborhood watch group.
At that meeting, organizers distributed fliers — “URGENT! SAVE SEABRIGHT NEIGHBORHOOD” — that described the possibility of unsheltered people migrating from encampments in other parts of the city to the streets of Seabright.
“Imagine the homeless scenes at Highway 101/River Street, the San Lorenzo Riverwalk, and downtown Pacific Ave/Laurel relocated to the Seabright residential neighborhood, two blocks from Seabright Beach, the harbor, and less than a quarter mile from Gault Elementary,” read a flier taped to the plexiglass sneezeguard at Java Junction coffee shop on Tuesday afternoon.
“The city is 16 square miles, certainly there are areas far more suitable than this residential neighborhood. It would decimate this area, making it unsafe, with accompanying drugs, alcohol abuse and break-ins/theft.”
What the ordinance allows for
Under the outdoor living ordinance, residential areas are explicitly off-limits to camping. However, camping is allowed, from one hour before sunset to 8 a.m., on public property (mostly sidewalks) in the Seabright industrial area. Portions of Seabright Avenue, between Hall Street and Marine Parade, will have camping-friendly areas, as well as segments of Watson, Bronson and Hall streets.
For Concannon, who unsuccessfully ran for Santa Cruz City Council in 2018, allowing unsheltered people to camp close to residential neighborhoods opens the door to increased crime, and the formation of nuisance homeless encampments like those the city has dealt with in other parts of town.
“If we allow this, we’ll just turn into a Camp Ross or Camp San Lorenzo and we’re getting tired of the whack-a-mole sort of thing,” she said.
On Tuesday, Santa Cruz reached a compromise in federal court that allows it to move dozens of people from a homeless encampment in San Lorenzo Park to a campsite in the Benchlands floodplain, beside the San Lorenzo River. The city has been trying to deal with the camp, and the litter, crime and other issues associated with it, for months.
The formation of an opposition group in Seabright is just the latest hurdle for the city’s controversial camping ordinance, formally known as the ‘temporary outdoor living ordinance.’ Since a 2018 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling made blanket camping bans unconstitutional when there is no other place for a homeless person to sleep — and county shelters are almost always full — the city must allow camping somewhere.
What started off as an ordinance that prohibited overnight camping in swaths of the city, including downtown, parks and beaches, evolved over the course of weeks into a law that leaves few places open to outdoor sleeping. Throughout that process, city residents spoke up about how the ordinance would impact their neighborhoods, and more places were struck from the list of permitted camping areas.
Once the law goes into effect, it is likely to only include three industrial areas — in the far Westside, Harvey West area and Seabright — and each of the primary commercial corridors: Mission, Ocean, Water and Soquel.
But for some Seabright neighbors just learning about it, the ordinance feels targeted at worst and nonsensical at best.
“It doesn’t solve any problems, it just moves them around,” said Novak, who estimated it would cost him up to $15,000 per month to hire 24-hour security to guard the Seabright Cannery property. Novak is dubious that any of the rules Santa Cruz City Council OK’d to make camping more tidy and less visible will be enforced, so he expects to bear the brunt of it as a business owner.
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Criticism from all sides
Homeless advocates and service providers have similarly criticized the city for crafting a law that offers few proactive steps toward addressing the homelessness crisis. In Santa Cruz, there are estimated to be hundreds of people sleeping on the streets every night.
In response to those critiques, city council members added into the law the creation of a lightly managed “safe sleeping” program that could serve 150 people or more. The city’s hope is that by requiring unsheltered people to pack up their belongings everyday, it can reduce the likelihood of “entrenched” encampments taking root in public spaces and disturbing nearby residents.
But Seabright-area critics are still bracing for impact. Smaller businesses in the area that are recovering from the pandemic, such as Pacific Edge rock climbing gym and Verve Coffee, will be “hurt” by having to deal with clean-up and safety issues associated with homelessness, Novak said.
For some local patrons of those businesses, the idea of navigating around unsheltered people living on sidewalks is uncomfortable.
“We’re kind of a walking neighborhood, and there’s some industrial zone right down there, but that industrial zone is between us and all these things we want to enjoy,” said John Teeple, who lives with his family about two blocks from the industrial area.
“I’m not saying I have a solution. All I’m saying is what you’re proposing, you’re just shifting the problem and you’re just redistributing it and you’re not really solving anything. For the campers themselves, it’s going to be super disruptive. For us, it’s going to be very, very disruptive,” Teeple said. “It’s just going to create more pressure on the problem.”
City hearing much feedback
Many community members have written to the city council and other city officials in recent days, city spokesperson Elizabeth Smith said via email. All of the comments are being taken into consideration, she said.
“Negative impacts on businesses and residents in any area of the city are of great concern to the council members and staff, particularly given the effects of the COVID-19 on our local businesses. Evaluation of the ordinance is a condition of its implementation, and the city will be monitoring the positive and negative impacts of the ordinance once it goes into effect,” Smith wrote in a statement.
“Should issues that threaten health, safety or access arise related to camping, or if the sidewalks are being blocked during daytime hours, residents and businesses are encouraged to notify the Santa Cruz Police Department for prompt enforcement.”
Although the outdoor living ordinance was given final approval earlier this month, the city council will consider “a full slate of amendments” on April 13 that must be approved before the law can be enforced. During that meeting, city officials could vote to make further changes to the law, which would then return to the city council for final approval at a future meeting, “likely” on April 27.
Due to the COVID-19 crisis, parts of the ordinance — including a prohibition on daytime camping — will not be enforced until either Santa Cruz County enters the yellow tier or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changes its guidelines related to homelessness. On Tuesday, the county moved into the orange tier, which is more restrictive than yellow.
Live in the Seabright neighborhood, or one of the others affected by the ordinance? We want to hear your thoughts. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org