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Santa Cruz City Council Amends Homeless Ordinance; Will Return in April

Council will revisit amendments on April 13 for sweeping set of rules

PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

The Santa Cruz City Council early Wednesday morning approved an ordinance that will drastically change the way the city deals with its homeless population.

But the sweeping package of rules will not take effect until after the council approves several amendments that were made in the late-night and early-morning hours, which will happen on April 13. At that time, the council and city staff will also discuss ways to deal with the disabled community of homeless people.

The amendments would then need a final vote at a later date. The ordinance would take effect 30 days after that.

In addition, the ordinance will not go into effect until the county enters the yellow tier of Covid-19 restrictions—two levels down from its current position in the red tier—and creates a safe sleeping program for at least 150 people.

The ordinance passed with a 5-2 vote, with council members Justin Cummings and Sandy Brown dissenting. Both said the board should wait until the amendments made Tuesday have been approved.

City officials say that the large encampments that have popped up around the city have created hazards such as environmental degradation, excavation, crime, illegal drug use and unsanitary conditions. 

The council heard the first draft during a marathon discussion on Feb. 23, when members made several amendments that were adopted Tuesday.

Dozens of people spoke at both meetings, most of them opposing the ordinance for various reasons. While many said that the rules were too strict, some said they did not go far enough in protecting the community from the problems associated with entrenched homeless encampments

Mayor Donna Meyers ended public comment after more than two hours in both meetings, a move that drew criticism from many speakers. 

But Meyers explained that the council still had to discuss the complex issue late into the night.

As written, the ordinance prohibits camping on beaches, in parks, in downtown Santa Cruz and in residential neighborhoods. Areas prone to fires and flooding, in addition to sensitive natural habitat, would also be off limits.

Camping would be allowed in commercial industrial zones, primarily along the sidewalks, in managed camps and areas designated as safe sleeping spaces, of which 150 are to be set up by the city. This includes the far Westside, Harvey West and an industrial area in the Seabright neighborhood. 

Camping was originally permitted in the open areas of Pogonip, Arana Gulch, DeLaVeaga Park and Moore Creek under the ordinance, but an amendment added late Tuesday by the council would prohibit that. In open spaces where camping is allowed, it must be at least 75 feet away from trails.

Camping in areas managed by California State Parks—including beaches and Lighthouse Field on West Cliff Drive—is already prohibited. 

Daytime camping between 7am and one hour before sunset would be prohibited, if the council approves the final version of the ordinance in April. This is an attempt to prevent entrenched camps from popping up, such as the unsanctioned Phoenix Camp that was dismantled in November 2019

There are exceptions in this rule for disabled people and their caretakers, and for families with children.

Fires are prohibited, as is storage of bike parts and accumulation of trash. The ordinance also restricts the size of camps.

Santa Cruz Planning and Community Development Director Lee Butler said the rules will give the city a tool to help deal with the crisis, but he stressed that it is not a panacea for the issue. 

“The ordinance as written, or even if council modifies it, is not going to end homelessness,” Butler said. “This is just one of the tools that would be used to address some of the behavioral, environmental and quality of life concerns that can arise, particularly with some of the larger camps that can arise.”

Also added Tuesday was a provision to conduct a quarterly census of the county’s homeless population, if funding is available. 

In crafting any ordinance regarding homeless people, jurisdictions nationwide are stymied somewhat by Martin v. the City of Boise. In that landmark case, the 9th Circuit Court ruled that prosecuting people for sleeping on public property is unconstitutional, unless alternate shelter is available.

Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills says officers would take a “progressive” approach, focusing on first helping homeless campers find shelter and other services they need.

But he says that under current rules—under which the worst penalty is a civil citation—repeat offenders have little incentive to follow the rules. 

As an example, he said one man has been cited 39 times in the past year for illegally camping on Main Beach. 

“In order for us to be effective, I believe we need to have some measure of accountability for the recalcitrant few who are determined not to adhere to the standards of living in this community,” Mills said. 

The ordinance, then, has several tiers, Mills says, starting with informing and educating illegal campers. Officers would then issue warnings, followed by possible misdemeanor citations, which would be used as a last resort.  

“We have issued a lot of citations over the years, and at the infraction level, there is not much motivation to actually appear on those citations,” Mills said. “So for us to be effective there has to be at least one higher level tier, where we can go to if absolutely necessary.”

City staff would make efforts to inform homeless people where sleeping is permitted. Families with minor children are not subject to arrest or citation. 

The ordinance also calls for the establishment of safe sleeping spaces, in addition to daytime storage spaces and transportation to those spaces. 

But that comes with a cost, Butler said.

He estimated that a single safe sleeping site for 50 people will cost $250,000 per year, and a storage program comes with an annual $75,000 price tag.

A managed camp can cost $1 million annually. The Benchlands site, which abuts the San Lorenzo River near the county courthouse, has become the focus of a lawsuit against the city and costs about $100,000 per month, Butler said. 

City Attorney Anthony Condotti told the council that the ordinance will almost certainly end up in litigation.

Councilmember Martine Watkins called such encampments “health hazards,” and pointed out that some families cannot bring their children to parks with encampments nearby.

“I can’t say that’s a healthy, equitable approach for our community,” Watkins said. 

Mayor Donna Meyers called the city’s homeless crisis, “a societal failure 30 years in the making.”

The council also directed City Manager Martín Bernal to set up a managed camp at 1220 River St., and report back to the council on those efforts by June. They additionally asked for a restorative justice system that would give those convicted of violating the ordinance a chance to perform community service. 

Meyers said that the ordinance is both a recognition that the city lacks sufficient space for its homeless population and a message that the beaches, parks and open spaces are not the places for camps.

“It’s really an attempt to clarify for the community how we will in a sense map where these people can be in our city,” she said.

UPDATED MARCH 18, 2021: This article was updated to correct a misspelling of Donna Meyers’ name. We regret the error.

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