The Santa Cruz City Council on Tuesday approved a homeless ordinance that restricts camping in most parts of the city, but requires a safe sleeping program and daytime storage before the rules can take effect.
The ordinance passed 5-2, with councilmembers Justin Cummings and Sandy Brown dissenting.
Planning Director Lee Butler said that the rules were created to eliminate the impacts of large encampments and establish a time, place and ways in which camping can occur.
The package of rules, called the “Camping Services and Standards Ordinance,” prohibits most camping in the city, a rule that will take effect when the city establishes at least 150 “safe sleeping sites.” It is unclear where those will be located, but under the ordinance they will not be located next to schools. They also cannot be placed adjacent to residential neighborhoods, but it was not clear Tuesday how that will be determined.
In cases where neighborhoods will be impacted, the city will perform extensive outreach to neighbors, Butler said.
The city is currently looking for a provider that would run the program.
The other rules include:
- The ordinance prohibits daytime camping, which will take effect when the city creates a storage program for belongings.
- People can sleep in their vehicles in the parking lots of churches—and businesses in non-residential portions of the city—with written consent of the owner or administrator.
- Violators face a $20 fine or community service.
- The rules will not apply to families with children under 18, and homeless people with a “qualifying disability” will get help from city or county workers to find shelter.
- In addition, the ordinance includes a quarterly census and semiannual reviews, and a report on arrests and citations that occur at the sanctioned camping sites.
The discussion included more than an hour of input from public speakers.
Tom Brown of the neighborhood group Seabright Strong called the ordinance, “a really good start to a really difficult and intransigent problem.”
“But I do think it’s the right approach,” he said.
The prohibition of sleeping sites near schools and in residential neighborhoods, he said, was a good addition that earned the support of the group.
Robert Singleton, speaking for the Santa Cruz County Business Council, said the group supported the rules, among other things, because they offered more options for housing.
“This is a major issue that every single jurisdiction big or small is facing,” he said. “So we absolutely need a unified concerted state and national effort if we are to make a dent in a major problem.”
But not everyone supported the ordinance. Serg Kagno of Stepping up Santa Cruz said that the enforcement aspect essentially criminalizes people for a situation that is often not their fault.
“This ordinance continues the marginalization of those with mental health challenges, suffering from trauma and those suffering from poverty,” he said.
The focus, he said, should be on “trauma-informed care,” which is the philosophy that people in adverse situations such as homelessness likely have some type of trauma in their past.
“Not all people who are homeless are criminals,” he said. “They’re living in poverty, have medical, mental health, domestic violence and trauma issues.”
Kagno added that the rules do not take into account the high level of care some homeless people need.
“Why is this ordinance making being homeless illegal?” he asked. “Criminalize crime, don’t criminalize being poor and homeless.”
Mayor Donna Meyers said that the ordinance was built from a protracted process, coming to the council five times. Councilmembers, she said, have received thousands of letters and hundreds of calls and held meetings with community members.
“It may not be perfect, it may not be what all of us want, but this is an ordinance that has been through a process of deliberation,” she said.
Brown said she opposed the motion because the city does not yet have a plan in place for the safe sleeping program.
“Passing the ordinance when we don’t even know if we can actually do the things we need to do in order to operationalize the ordinance just seems really cart-before-the-horse to me, and potentially self-defeating,” she said.
Brown also said the city should be focused on intervention rather than enforcement of rules.
Cummings said he wanted the community to be more involved in creating the rules and asked for two more public meetings, a motion that was voted down.
“I do believe that when we are creating laws that are going to impact people’s lives. Especially when it comes to one of the most controversial topics in the community, we need as much input as possible,” he said.