After 14 years of living in Santa Cruz, a woman who asked to be identified as April Ross says her family was forced out of their home because the landlord wanted to sell the property and cash in on the rising real estate market. At the time, the Ross family bought a recreational vehicle (RV) that they thought would serve as a transitional space while they found a new permanent home.
Four years later, Ross is still one of the many longtime Santa Cruz residents who no longer have traditional housing. She, instead, lives out of her RV with her husband and two young children.
According to the Association of Faith Communities of Santa Cruz (AFC)—a collaborative faith-based nonprofit dedicated to helping Santa Cruz residents below the poverty line—30% of adults experiencing homelessness in Santa Cruz live out of their cars, and one-third of them live with their children.
Ross considers herself one of the lucky ones. After a long effort of applying to various RV parks throughout the county, Ross’ family was accepted to one the very day they bought their recreational vehicle.
“The whole time, we didn’t know [where we were going to go],” she says. “We were just praying and hoping.”
They now reside in a mobile park where Ross says she feels safe. She has a small yard she can escape to when feeling claustrophobic, and is surrounded by neighbors who she says help keep an eye on each other—mainly elderly people and other families.
“There are so many people that live in our park that are in the same situation,” she says. “Just in the last six months we’ve had more and more families move in. Before it was just us and maybe one other family. Now, there’s like six.”
The long-debated issue of where residents living out of their cars and oversized vehicles, like RVs, should be allowed is expected to return to city leaders later this year. Near the end of the Santa Cruz City Council’s 13-hour June 22 meeting, Vice Mayor Sonja Brunner proposed a motion directing staff to work on designated areas for RV parking that would align with current camping services and ensure there would be adequate sanitation, waste dump and trash sites. The motion passed unanimously.
“I’ve heard from many concerned constituents about some of the harmful impacts on the environment and on human health with current RV sites and dumping of human waste and trash,” Brunner writes in an email to GT, adding she believes community involvement will be important in further discussions concerning a new RV ordinance.
Readers will remember the 2015 RV ordinance—commonly referred to as the RV ban—that halted oversized vehicle parking in selected areas between the hours of 8pm and 8am. But that rule was overturned by the California Coastal Commission (CCC) in August 2016, following an appeal from local advocates for people experiencing homelessness.
The CCC, voting 11-1, said the ban restricted coastal access. It was a controversial and raucous meeting, with ex-City Council member Richelle Noroyan and three others ejected for yelling at then-Coastal Commissioner Martha McClure.
“In the time since then, we’ve told the city if they want to come back to the commission, to come back with evidence concerning two issues,” CCC Central Coast District Supervisor Ryan Moroney tells GT. “What’s the need for this restriction? And also a plan on where people displaced are supposed to go.”
Moroney acknowledges the CCC has heard about the issues Bruner highlighted to GT, but says the state-wide agency needs hard data in order to make informed decisions.
“Not ad hoc or anecdotal evidence,” he says. “People are saying there’s trash, defecation and drug use, but there wasn’t a whole lot of hard evidence of that.”
Currently, there are anti-RV parking signs in certain areas of the Westside—near the intersection of Almar Avenue and Rankin Street, for example—that are legally posted, as they fall just outside of the CCC’s jurisdiction. In other areas of the city, however, there is little clarity about where and when people living out of their vehicles can park.
On Aug. 24, the Santa Cruz Police Department did a citywide sweep and towed four RVs that were reported as nuisances, including one that was leaking sewage, according to an SCPD social media post.
“Vehicles in violation came to our attention after being left in place for much longer than 72 hours,” it read.
Lee Butler, the city’s director of Planning, Community Development and Homelessness Response, told the City Council on June 22 that Santa Cruz is only in the beginning stages of a new RV-related ordinance. Butler told the council that as of June 1 the city allowed the expansion of the number of overnight safe parking spaces from three to six on religious assembly sites, and from two to three at business locations. This was in accordance with the Camping Services and Standards Ordinance (CSSO) passed on June 8.
“I also want to note that we have been having conversations with the Association of Faith Communities about a pilot program for on-street, safe parking spaces,” he told the council. “AFC does operate a lot of the safe parking places at churches and other religious assembly sites in the city.”
Butler says his department could have an updated report regarding RV parking for the City Council as early as September.
“The direction that we have from council is specifically to conduct research on processes and procedures from past history, and bring that information back to them in October,” he says.
In an email to GT, Butler wrote that neither the private businesses nor the religious sites needed permits to operate their SafeSpaces programs, so the city has no record of exactly how many spaces are available.
AFC SafeSpaces program manager Father Joseph Jacobs says there are currently nine religious sites within the city offering overnight parking for vehicles. Combined with the two city-run sites at Lot 17 behind Wheel Works and the Police Department parking lot, Jacobs says there are 45 total spots that he is aware of. However, of those 45, only a small number are specified for self-contained vehicles that have their own sanitation management, such as RVs.
“Maybe nine parking spaces are for RVs,” he says.
Butler also noted the recent CSSO does not affect on-street parking regulations for RVs, meaning as long as there is no new ordinance, current parking conditions will remain.
Since the 2016 CCC decision, there have also been major changes to homeless issues on a national level. In 2019, the Supreme Court upheld the 2018 Martin v. Boise decision, which ruled cities cannot approve anti-camping ordinances if they do not provide enough shelter beds for homeless populations. How that decision will affect people living in their vehicles is a legal gray area actively being explored across the country by homeless rights activists and lawyers. In the city of Lacey, Washington, a lawsuit filed last year is presently challenging that city’s RV ordinance, passed in 2019, based on the Martin v. Boise case.