Homes not Jails: Santa Cruz City Council votes to continue the sleeping ban

Photo: Alex Darocy

Photo: Alex Darocy

The crackdown on the homeless took another ugly step in Santa Cruz, California. On March 8, 2016, the city council voted 5 to 2 to continue to criminalize sleeping. This follows votes to implement harsh stay-away orders from parks and beaches for people engaging in activities like sleeping at night, smoking or being in a park after hours.

They voted to install nausea-inducing, ear-splitting “Mosquito Boxes” in parks and near bridges where homeless people seek shelter from the rain. They also passed an ordinance that limits vending on the city’s main shopping street, Pacific Avenue, among many other forms of municipal assaults on the city’s homeless.

While the city was passing these laws, emergency services for the homeless were being eliminated or reduced at the Homeless Service Center. These are policies designed to make life so miserable that people leave.

A coalition of local homeless people and community groups, including Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom, The Homeless Depot and Food Not Bombs, organized a civil disobedience campaign starting with a July 4, 2015, sleep-out in front of City Hall. The coalition called itself “The Freedom Sleepers,” inspired by the fact that one of the founding members, Rabbi Phil Posner, had been a Freedom Rider in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

City officials responded to the Tuesday sleep-outs by blocking the parking spaces in front of City Hall to make room for a series of generated powered floodlights. The city also deployed a large contingent of police that came in waves to drive away the sleeping protesters from the City Hall grounds. Then Mayor Don Lane, City Manager Martín Bernal and Human Resources Director Lisa Murphy implemented a smear campaign that included false claims of litter and threatening behavior by the homeless and their supporters. Police issued dozens of tickets and made several arrests.

Finally, after months of protest, Santa Cruz City Councilperson and former Mayor Don Lane, introduced a change in the sleeping ban. Councilperson Don Lane introduced a simple proposal to decriminalize outdoor sleeping at night. He asked for the removal of the text on sleeping from the city’s Municipal Code 6.36.010. His proposal failed, with Micah Posner being the only other council member to vote in favor. Dozens of people spoke, urging the council to remove sleeping from the ordinance. One speaker, Raven, noted that people cannot steal, defecate or shoot drugs while sleeping and that, once jailed, federal and state law guaranteed the prisoners right to sleep.

Several of the five council leaders mentioned the news the notion that compassion would attract hordes of homeless people to their wealthy city. Councilwoman Richelle Noroyan exemplified the ignorance of many on the council to the reality of being homeless, announcing: “I don’t see how lifting this ban is going to help the homeless themselves or the community.”

Police Chief Kevin Vogel responded to City Council’s questions, saying the police issued 1,913 camping citations in 2015, with 1,555 or about 81 percent specifically related to sleeping and 3 percent related to sleeping in a vehicle. The police department’s research shows that about 96 percent of those citations go unpaid. Mauro Garcia, interim Parks and Recreation director, told the council that  city park rangers gave out an average of about 40 camping citations each month in 2015.

Councilperson Don Lane, City Attorney Anthony Condotti and several members of the public noted that a vote against the removal of the word “sleep” from the city’s camping ban could be considered a violation of the the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Lane also noted that continuing the ban could be a violation of the United Nations’ charter and lead to cuts in Housing and Urban Development funding.

The U.S Department of Justice issued a “Statement of Interest” in 2015 in support of the plaintiffs in Bell v. Boise, Idaho, a case stemming from the criminalization of the city’s homeless. The DOJ wrote that: “When adequate shelter space exists, individuals have a choice about whether or not to sleep in public. However, when adequate shelter space does not exist, there is no meaningful distinction between the status of being homeless and the conduct of sleeping in public. Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity — i.e., it must occur at some time in some place. If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”

The Washington Post wrote that: “Housing and shelter accommodations across the country haven’t kept pace with the homeless population’s surging numbers since the recession. In Santa Cruz, California, more than 80 percent of the homeless have no safe shelter options, according to a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.”

The Special Rapporteur on the right to housing, Leilani Farha, wrote that: “Homeless people are often denied access to basic services such as water or sanitation and are even fined for engaging in activities necessary for their own survival—for instance, eating and sleeping in public spaces… Homelessness is not just one of the most extreme forms of physical deprivation; it also defines a group that is subject to extreme forms of discrimination and violence. For homeless people, it’s double jeopardy: Laws and policies create homelessness and then penalize homeless people for being homeless.”

Leilani Farha also wrote that: “Governments should take note” that ensuring the right to housing will be center stage at the upcoming Habitat III, U. N. Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development in Quito, Ecuador, on October 17-20, 2016. Cities like Santa Cruz, California, could get special attention for violating the human rights of its residents.

An estimated 3 million Americans are homeless. Many live in modern day “Hoovervilles” of cardboard, pallets, tents and tarps. Most of these encampments have sprung up out of necessity while others have organized to protest the failed economic and political system, the criminalization of the poor and cuts in social services. Lack of affordable housing and jobs that pay a living wage have forced tens of thousands of families to set up homes in makeshift shanty towns, doorways, parks or their vehicles. Candidates Clinton and Sanders talk about the economy, poverty and racism but so far the issue of America’s homeless communities has not made it into the presidential conversation. This is a conversation America needs to have.

Clinton’s husband pushed the policies that have caused millions to wonder our streets seeking a safe place to rest. Corporation first policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement that sent good paying jobs to low wage countries. The end of Depression era regulations like Glass–Steagall U.S. Banking Act of 1933 that limited commercial bank securities, activities to commercial banks and securities firms.  Clinton’s push to pass the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act of 1999 helped lead to the housing foreclosure crisis of 2007-2008. Clinton’s crime bill that resulted in the mass incarceration of tens of thousands for nonviolent crimes. Thousand who when released have few prospects for employment or housing often finding the only option is homelessness.

President Reagan with his “trickle down” neoliberal economic policies and the diversion federal taxes from domestic programs to the military caused the first wave of homelessness in America but Clinton’s agenda caused many more people to become internally displaced and houseless.

Obama did little for the homeless until late in his presidency when his Justice Department declared that the camping bans were a violation of the constitution and the Department of Housing and Urban Development told cities that they could face cuts in funding if they continued to criminalize the homeless. Yet his “Corporation First” economic policies like support for the Trans Pacific Partnership and the weak The Dodd–Frank bank reforms are sure to drive thousands of more into homelessness.

A number of those on the Santa Cruz City Council who spoke out against ending the sleeping ban claimed that national policy changes were the only solution. Santa Cruz Sentinel’s Jessica Young noted that “Council members voting against the proposal shared different reasons for their decisions, but most said the amendment either would not be effective in its aims or that the council should focus its energies on solving homelessness, rather than allowing people to sleep on the streets.” The simple change to legalize sleeping was out of the question.

Many of those participating in the Freedom Sleepers campaign have been calling on City Council to solve homelessness and provide affordable housing and push for changes in national priorities for over 25 years only to be met with excuses and claims that the city was powerless to provide a comprehensive program to address the crisis.  A change in national priorities is needed but the continued use of the police in municipal campaigns to make the homeless suffer enough to drift to another city should also stop.

While most cities are taking the same position as Santa Cruz and are busy clearing out their homeless, one notable exception is the plan put forth by Portland, Oregon’s Mayor Charlie Hales. People would be allowed to place sleeping bags on the sidewalk and some other limited areas, covered by a tarp, between the hours of 9 pm and 7 am. People would be required to store their tents during the day in a city provided facility. A maximum of six people could sleep in an area. Vehicle spaces in parking lots would also be provided. The mayor is also considering the purchase of as many as 200 disaster-relief pods. However, this proposal is not popular with the business community.

Josh Alpert, Hales’ chief of staff, said, “Nobody should have to sleep outside, but until we have enough indoor beds for people, our goal and responsibility is to ensure that people have a safe place to sleep and basic human needs met. We are aware of the growth at Greeley, and are working quickly to make sure that it continues to be a safe, temporary place to sleep and continues to be a good neighbor.”

Many American cities responded to the homelessness crisis by destroying homeless encampments or as I call them “Clintonvilles,” our modern day Hoovervilles of the 1930s, while offering little in the way of help for those driven from the safety of their camps. San Francisco Mayor Lee started a campaign to drive the homeless out of sight in apparent preparation for the Super Bowl. Yet, the campaign has become increasingly brutal in the weeks following the global spectacle. Over 50 tents were removed by city workers from Division Street in San Francisco on March 1, 2016.

Over a year ago, the City of San Jose destroyed Silicon Valley’s largest encampment, 68 acres along Coyote Creek dubbed “The Jungle.” Bulldozers and Trash compactors arrived early in the morning of December 4, 2014 removing many of the items left behind by the nearly 300 people that call the The Jungle their home.

The San Jose Mercury News covered the story opening with “A caravan of misery lined the sidewalk along Story Road. Evicted homeless people stood beside a seemingly endless row of shopping carts filled with their meager possessions as they watched city workers descend into “The Jungle” Thursday and begin dismantling the country’s most infamous encampment.”

The Mercury continued with “The city’s Bramson said that while everybody had to be out of the Jungle on Thursday, workers will be cleaning up the site through Dec. 19 at a cost of between $400,000 and $500,000, which is being shared by the city and the Santa Clara Valley Water District. When completed, park rangers and San Jose police working overtime will patrol the site to prevent re-encampment, which is exactly what has happened after past cleanups.”

Denver stooped so low it forced the closure of a small camp during the middle of a blizzard. The camp returned soon after. On March 8, 2016, city workers and the police descended on the homeless community once again,confiscating people’s belongings.

”Since the last sweep of the same area on a frigid, snowy December night last year, the number of people trying to exist and survive without housing in Denver has continued to grow,” Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, executive director of the ACLU of Colorado, said in a statement.” reported the Denver Post.

Those people fortunate enough to save their meager belongings quickly set up a new camp across from the Samaritan House Homeless Shelter at Lawrence Street and Park Avenue West. Caltrans removed a homeless encampment off Highway 86 in Coachella, California  on March 7, 2016, driving at least 20 people out to other areas of town.

The city of Torrington in Connecticut also cleared camps in early March 2016. Mayor Elinor Carbone issued a press release saying  “For too long there have been a number of encampments that have been the source of aggravation and nuisance for many, Neighboring residents should not have to live in worry or fear every time they need to use their Dumpster or park their car. While various encampments have been in existence for varying amounts of time, it is my hope that we can seize this opportunity to eliminate these sites and provide appropriate discouragement of future encampments from being re-established.”

Kelly Bryant,  lived at the Tent City  for nine months“I would like to see them leave Tent City alone until they have a better solution for the people. You almost have to be a professional advocate for yourself .”

Even efforts to provide some shelter like  “Tiny House, Huge Purpose” organized by Elvis Summers in Los Angeles have come under attack.  The city amended a law in 2015 to regulate the storage of personal property in public areas from a required 72 hours notice before clearing an encampment to just 24 hours of lead-time. The changes  also allow the city to confiscate and destroy items deemed bulky, including tents and as happened in February, Summers Tiny Houses, without any notice at all. The city started taking the 37 tiny houses in February.

LA Times reporter Gale Holland covered the confiscation of the tiny houses parked under the 110 Freeway overpass. “Johnny Horton, 60, whose heavily bandaged legs were scored with wounds from uncontrolled diabetes, wept silently Wednesday as he contemplated going back to sleeping in the street.”

“Laying on that tent on the sidewalk, it’s impossible to keep clean,” Horton said. He said the staff at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, which discharged him Tuesday, said they’d try to get him housing, but it would take one to three months.” “I grew up in this neighborhood.” Horton said.”

The February 25, 2016 Los Angeles Times article continues. “Posted on Julia Briggs Cannon’s tiny house next to the city impound notice were several fliers seeking the whereabouts of her husband, Larry Joe Cannon.” “Cannon, 58, said her husband, a Vietnam-era Marine veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder and memory loss, was hospitalized with a seizure Feb. 5, then disappeared.”

“Larry Joe Cannon turned up Friday, but the couple’s house was gone. As Summers drove off with her house on a flatbed trailer, Julia Cannon sat on a thin bedroll on the ground and pointed to the concrete.” ”I’m staying right here,” she said, her eyes filling with tears.” the  article concludes.
Julia Briggs Cannon’s tears are not necessary. The Oklahoma-based consultant group, Creative Housing Solutions studied homelessness in Osceola, Seminole, and Orange counties of Florida.  Florida residents pay $31,065 per street person per year on jail, emergency medial care and other related services while it would only cost $10,051 to provide them with housing, reducing the need for those other tax payer funded interventions.

Cities like Santa Cruz, California could have the resources to provide real solutions to homelessness if they had the political will. After all, many of America’s wealthiest people live in the area like the leaders of Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Apple and Hewlett Packard. If providing funding for affordable housing and education, access to addiction treatment and mental health services is too much for them to share how about actively supporting national policies and candidates that would change our priorities so that no one is forced to live on our streets or eat at soup kitchens.

That is the question activists who helped start the Santa Cruz Freedom Sleepers have been asking for over 25 years. It is time for people without housing and their friends to redouble their efforts and use this election year to put ending homelessness on the national agenda.

Activists are talking about increasing their pressure in Santa Cruz form civil rights lawsuits to filing complaints with the United Nations. Some are even suggesting a much bigger Tent City protest in a location where no one can miss it. Maybe there could be a spring of Tent City protests in every community!  Ending homelessness is possible if Americans take direct action to make it so.

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