Homeless and allies take to the streets for a candlelight vigil
A candlelight vigil protesting the recent crackdown and clearing out of homeless camps by the Santa Cruz Police Department made its way through Downtown Santa Cruz on Friday night, Sept. 7, with the aim of raising awareness about those with no other option but to sleep outside. About 60 homeless people, homeless activists and sympathizers gathered in front of City Hall, formed an orderly procession through downtown, paid a visit to the levy of the San Lorenzo River that has recently been cleared of all homeless camps, and returned to City Hall, hearing speeches and testimonials along the way.
The SCPD, aided by the city’s Public Works and Parks departments, is now in the eighth week of its intensive effort to clear out homeless camps and arrest anyone involved in criminal activity. By law enforcement standards, the task force has been successful: 75 homeless camps have been cleared, 126 arrested, and 378 citations issued as of Sept. 1, according to Deputy Police Chief Steve Clark. “It’s time to return these open spaces to their intended uses to the citizens of Santa Cruz,” Clark says. “It’s our job to make it as inconvenient as possible to engage in criminal activity, and this project has been successful doing that.”
The concept of “criminalizing homelessness,” as well as alleged profiling and selective targeting of homeless people by police, was discussed by participants at the candlelight vigil. These topics were sometimes raised in anger, but more often in terms of the need to reach out to the larger community to promote more compassion and understanding.
Becky Johnson, from the Homeless United for Friendship & Freedom (HUFF), taped a letter to the door of the Parks and Recreation Department that stated, “These raids, conducted during an obvious shelter emergency, are unproductive, a waste of public resources, and in light of the lack of legal shelter available to these people, inhumane.” The letter concluded with an invitation to city officials to attend HUFF meetings for a “civil dialogue in an open process.”
Clark feels he has the full support of the larger community for the crackdown, as shown by more than 20 emails and dozens of phone calls he says he has received that express appreciation since the Task Force got started. “The community response underscores the magnitude of the problem, and it was worse than we thought,” Clark says. “Many of the so-called homeless have hijacked our public open spaces and turned them into criminal hideouts.”
Pastor Steve of the Circle Church gave an invocation to the crowd before the march got started, urging an intention of nonviolence. “Gandhi once said that anger and intolerance make correct thinking impossible,” he told the crowd, “and to that I would add fear … I’ve noticed almost everyone I’ve talked to lately is operating from an energy of fear—that’s not an intention that’s going to create constructive solutions.
“What the police are doing is cracking down on the symptoms of a much larger problem, and in so doing simply making the problem worse,” he continued. “I would love to work with the city council in addressing the causes, in terms of more affordable housing, drug treatment and mental healthcare.”
Spokespeople on both sides of the controversy say their opponents are working from biased and inaccurate stereotypes. “I think the organizers of this demonstration are confusing legitimate folks who are down and out and struggling to get on their feet, for whom services are available, with a criminal element that the community needs protection from, not to mention the environmental degradation of our open spaces,” says Clark.
Ben, 33, who has been living “outdoors” in Santa Cruz for more than a year and wouldn’t give his last name, says he was displaced twice in the last few weeks, and managed to avoid getting cited for illegal camping by simply moving on as soon as a warning was issued. “I haven’t seen any hard drug use,” Ben says. “The worst crime is leaving trash, and I’ve tried to get other homeless people to clean up their act. Most of us are just exhausted from the harassment, we always have to be on guard, and all we want is safe place to sleep.”