News

How Santa Cruz Neighborhoods Are Organizing on Homelessness

City retooling ordinance to regulate when and where people may sleep

Santa Cruz County Third District Supervisor Ryan Coonerty talks with members of the Seabright Strong group that fought back against the city’s efforts to move overnight camping to the neighborhood. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

By Jacob Pierce and Tarmo Hannula

Seabright resident Paige Concannon says that an influential neighborhood movement she helped create all started with a reflection about her community.

Concannon says she feels police response times have always been slower east of the San Lorenzo Rivermouth, and people in her community are scrappy and have always looked out for each other. “We’re strong,” she says.

That’s what gave her an idea. 

In recent months, when Santa Cruz’s city staff laid out places for unsheltered Santa Cruzans to sleep at night as part of the Temporary Outdoor Living Ordinance (TOLO), they cordoned off much of the city as off-limits to camping. However, a sizable chunk of the area where unhoused residents would still be allowed to sleep was in Seabright. Residents in that neighborhood voiced opposition to the ordinance, many of them out of concern that an influx of campers would overrun the sidewalks and hurt businesses. Concannon, who was one of them, helped launch a campaign. She called it “Seabright Strong,” and friends started printing signs with that message on them.

Each sign showed a tent with a slash going through it.

“Seabright is saying to the City Council, ‘We’re strong; we’re gonna make you do your job, and we’re gonna keep hounding you until it’s done, because we are a gathered force,’” Concannon says.

Seabright residents ultimately convinced the Santa Cruz City Council to scrap the TOLO and head back to the drawing board to draft a new ordinance. Nonetheless, the “Seabright Strong” campaign gave a queasy feeling to some of Concannon’s neighbors.

Fellow Seabright resident Kelsey Hill opposed the TOLO for her own reasons. She worried less about the impacts on Seabright in particular and more about how she felt the ordinance—which would have banned camping citywide during the day—would be far too restrictive and too disruptive to the city’s unhoused residents. 

Hill, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for the City Council in 2020, notes that slogans like “SLV Strong” or “San Bernardino Strong” normally crop up after a local trauma, like a terrorist attack or a natural disaster, not in response to a homelessness policy. Also, she says “Seabright Strong” implied a unified opposition to the TOLO for shared reasons, when the reality is more complex. More than anything, Hill, who works in communications, felt “Seabright Strong” sent a loud “othering” message, not just to the homeless people made to feel unwelcome on Seabright streets, but to the neighborhood’s progressives who criticized the ordinance for their own reasons.

Concannon, who ran for the City Council in 2016 as a Republican, knows her messaging got some pushback from critics. But she stands by it, saying that, at the end of the day, she and her neighbors achieved their goal.

“I understand some of them are like, ‘That’s kind of shitty,’” says Concannon, who works as a cook at St. Francis Soup Kitchen. “Believe me. I know that. But how else do you get the City Council to move?’”

The challenge now is how to move forward. Concannon says pretty much everyone she talks to is pressuring the council for a resolution.

“All the neighborhoods are coming together and saying, ‘You keep talking about this, and nothing changes, and now, we’re telling you, you have to change it now,’” she says. “Things have to change now. Not another focus group. None of that. Let’s fix it.”

Fixing a crisis, however, means different things to different people, especially when it comes to a topic as complex as homelessness—and in a town where oftentimes the only things more controversial than the status quo are the various solutions that city staffers, politicians and activists have thrown against the wall in recent years.

In scrapping the TOLO, the Santa Cruz City Council, on a 5-2 vote, has now given staff until May 11 to draft a revision to the ordinance.

Janice Bisgaard, a city spokesperson, says staff are on schedule to bring back a revised ordinance, along with implementation and engagement plans for the safe sleeping and storage programs, which they anticipate will be set up on city parking lots downtown. Staff are working on identifying sites, she says, and will be taking applications from potential service providers interested in partnering.

The downtown parking lot idea isn’t new. The council identified a lot on Washington Street for a safe sleeping zone two years ago, then threw the plan out rather promptly, due to neighborhood opposition. One year later, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the city opened a camping zone at a different parking lot in the same area, only to close it within two days. Other local managed camps—like one that the county moved from the San Lorenzo Benchlands to DeLaveaga Park—have seen some success, however.

In Seabright, the issues stretch beyond homelessness, says resident Shelley Hatch, whose family bought a home in Santa Cruz in 1969 because they couldn’t afford a home in San Francisco.

Hatch, who helped organize meetings about the TOLO, says she’s still reeling from organizing around the successful effort a couple years ago to get the city to nix its plans to upzone corridors, like Soquel Avenue, for greater density of market-rate and affordable housing. If the city builds more housing, the influx of new cars would be too great for Santa Cruz roads to bear, she says, given many people like to drive and she doesn’t know how many people would want to ride bikes.

A former restaurant owner, Hatch says much of her concern around the TOLO was for businesses. The potential for sidewalk camping wrought by the hypothetical ordinance, she feels, would have dealt them a significant blow. 

But homelessness is a regional and statewide crisis, she says, and one that merits regional and statewide solutions, a challenge that she hopes is now obvious to everyone.

And as for the options locally, none of them come easy, especially when critics lash out at any plan to let people sleep near neighborhoods, near businesses or in parks.

“I go on Nextdoor, and I see residents of a lot different areas say they’ve had it,” Hatch says. “I know people who live off Ocean Street have been unhappy for a long time. It’s big, and it’s going to get bigger. The haters are maybe starting to get the idea that it isn’t just a Santa Cruz problem.”

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Evan

    April 23, 2021 at 9:37 pm

    “But homelessness is a regional and statewide crisis, she says, and one that merits regional and statewide solutions, a challenge that she hopes is now obvious to everyone.”

    It may be a statewide crisis. Doesn’t negate the fact that our city has some blame in these matters as well. I love how people sidestep the real issues here at home. Just look at our debt we’re in. These city officials have ruined our city for decades,! I’m not at all shocked on how our city looks. They seem to just keep spending on worthless, and endless crap, while keeping there pockets full of money.

    I’d love to see these city officials sleep outside for a year, maybe they might have some better ideas, that just brushing things under the rug, and not helping the homeless.

  2. James

    April 22, 2021 at 8:09 am

    As 9-year resident of West Santa Cruz and someone who seen homelessness happen to a former coworker, there are no easy answers. This is an excellent question of how a community should respond to our homeless crisis. Regan swept mental health under a rug when we shut down our mental hospitals as these hospitals were too expensive to operate. Our homeless problem has been festering for 50 years.

    Children are rooted with family dysfunctions by age 10; every family has plenty of dysfunctions, some dysfunctions are worse than can be guessed. Any soccer coach or teacher is training at least one child with significant family dysfunction on every team or in every classroom. As someone who coached many soccer teams it’s a rarely the child who is the problem. It’s the one parent unaware of their dysfunction who sets adverse priorities for their child who is most detrimental to all the children on the team. Later this rooted dysfunction comes back to haunt the child in adulthood often after rebellious teen years. While most adults become functional enough to fit society, many end up homeless. Whether it be anger issues, odd expectations or perhaps seemingly innocent white lies experienced as a child the net result is often a dysfunctional homeless adult. Granted there is a small fraction of homeless people by their own intention, the vast majority are not unhoused of their own volition. Society refuses to grapple with this mental health problems for a lot of political reasons; one being certain groups would be exposed as being emperors having no clothes. If we thought sex education in school was a problem, imagine teaching fifth graders how to spot and protect themselves from parents with behavioral problems. Teaching fifth graders risk management, giving children tools to better understand what their choices mean. This is taking power away from a the 1 in 10 nut job parent living in their self-entitled world of dysfunction.

    There are no one size fits all answers to this problem, Regan shut mental hospitals in 1972 because the solution at the time was not workable. The best we can do is experimentally try a number of different programs like SpaceX develops rockets; we have to kill off poorly performing programs quickly and move on. This requires politicians to be invested in actual outcomes rather than funding their pet programs; otherwise mental health will become another bloated space shuttle program for a few well-placed constituents and their representatives to profit.

  3. rebecca partridge

    April 21, 2021 at 11:17 pm

    Its a shame and a waste of time and money to only listen to the haters instead of coming together as a community to find solutions! And viable options instead of continuing to point fingers and prosecute people for being homeless? Theres hundreds of acres owned by ucsc,churches , corporations and the City that could b utilized! Why downtown in a cement parking lot right in the way of bussinesses etc?

  4. Morgan Fisher

    April 21, 2021 at 4:04 pm

    Homeless or not can we all get board on Team: “Not trashing the Natural Beauty of Santa Cruz”.

  5. Robert Norse

    April 21, 2021 at 12:31 am

    I notice there’s no homeless input here from the thousand plus who are outside in Santa Cruz. Instead the focus is on NIMBY’s who have no vision further than exclusion of visible poverty in thier own neighborhood and demonizing the poor.

    This is an old nasty narrative, bullhorned and rationalized by Good Times writers, acting as stenographers for reactionary gated-community gentrifiers. It’s a nasty form of local Trumpism, which continues under Democratic politicians whose “look away” anti-homeless policies open the floodgates to fear and fraud from right-wing organizers ready to bed down with repressive police state solutions.

    Ignoring the privileges of the powerful and turning on each other is the same dead end it always was. We end up fighting each other instead and running after boogeymen instead of cutting back the power of the rich and “respectable” and restoring it to the whole community.

  6. Shawn

    April 20, 2021 at 7:56 pm

    Great article thank you.. I like the quote “The haters are maybe starting to get the idea that it isn’t just a Santa Cruz problem”

    Absolutely!! We all need to lobby our county and state reps for funding and solutions. There is no political will to effectively solve this crisis, I truly hope people will vent their frustrations more frequently beyond our City Council

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Are you an earthling? Prove it with logic: *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

To Top