by Steve Pleich
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]lthough the Homeless Persons Legal Assistance Project is a relatively new ally with the community of people experiencing homelessness in Santa Cruz, many local advocacy organizations have been active for decades in the fight for homeless rights.
Together with groups such as Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom (HUFF) and Housing Now, we are not only working to support the unsheltered, we are developing new strategies to challenge the institutional prejudices that have not only marginalized but have also criminalized homeless people in Santa Cruz.
In an effort to focus the community discussion on the underlying causes of this prejudice and marginalization, we have created an online Petition for One Year Moratorium of Camping Ban Ordinances and Laws to raise the level of public debate about how we treat our homeless residents and what we can do to better understand them.
Since their enactment in the city and county of Santa Cruz, the laws and ordinances that prohibit “camping” and/or “sleeping” have been wholly ineffective in addressing the environmental and social impact of survival sleeping by local homeless people. They have also been ineffective as a policy aimed at reducing the size and presence of the homeless population.
Recent statistics clearly show that the number of people experiencing homelessness in both the city and county has increased despite the continuing enforcement of these laws and ordinances.
Additionally, the Santa Cruz Police Department, Parks and Recreation Department, the City Attorney, the Sheriff’s Office, as well as the entire Santa Cruz County Superior Court judicial system continue to expend resources and funds in the enforcement and administration of these laws — resources that could be more productively applied to addressing the very real challenge of ending or significantly reducing homelessness in our community.
It is clear from these facts that criminalizing homelessness, and particularly, outlawing the essential right to sleep, is a failed policy and one that must be revisited if we are to move forward and create truly positive outcomes for our unsheltered residents.
That is why homeless advocacy organizations are now calling upon the Santa Cruz City Council and the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors to consider for approval a One Year Moratorium on the enforcement within their respective jurisdictions of all camping and sleeping ban laws and ordinances between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. Also, we are calling upon our local governing bodies to instruct their respective staffs, in cooperation with their finance departments, to conduct a fiscal review of the cost savings of the proposed moratorium.
By any reasonable estimation, the City and County of Santa Cruz are spending many tens of thousands of dollars annually in the enforcement and administration of camping/sleeping ban ordinances and laws. The proposed moratorium would not only provide an accurate accounting of those costs and savings; it would also identify those agencies and organizations where policy change with regard to the homeless community could have the maximum positive effect.
Simply by just “pressing pause” on this massive investment in anti-homeless enforcement, the structural design flaws in the existing system could be examined. This alone, in our view, would justify the abatement of enforcement for this relatively brief period.
During this period, we are also calling upon our elected officials to review the feasibility of establishing “safe space” overnight parking areas within the city and county, as well as the development of a plan to increase the availability of and access to public restroom facilities at night.
Local groups, and particularly the faith community, have called for the creation of designated areas within the city and county where vehicularly housed residents could safely park from dusk until dawn and find the peaceful night’s sleep that they cannot get by parking on public streets in violation of local ordinances.
It is estimated that between 200 and 300 motor homes, recreational vehicles, vans and automobiles are home every night to those who cannot otherwise find shelter. This may represent as many as 500 of our nearly 3,500 homeless residents in Santa Cruz County. The possibility of providing a “safe space” for so significant a percentage of the unsheltered more than justifies serious consideration of this proposal.
While we believe that these are practical suggestions that speak to a culture that has systematically worked to vilify and exclude a large segment of our community based solely upon their housing status, change is needed on a policy level as well. We are calling upon our local elected bodies to designate ending homelessness as a legislative priority.
Although reasonable minds may differ about the wisdom of our current policies, it cannot be disputed that the fair treatment of people experiencing homelessness has historically been one of our lowest legislative priorities. We believe that even the symbolic gesture that this may well be can profoundly impact the public perception of this issue.
The more substantive approach would include the creation of a commission or committee singularly tasked with addressing homelessness in Santa Cruz, and given full advisory authority to do all acts in furtherance of that task.
This is our proposal. Some community members have expressed concerns about the practical effects of the proposed moratorium. Some say that even a temporary suspension of existing law and ordinance would have a disruptive effect on our community, and this is a possibility.
But we are in a state of social emergency that challenges all of us to take a leap of faith. In creating our Petition and proposal, we are declaring that small steps are no longer enough.
The full text of the One Year Moratorium on Enforcement of Camping Ban Laws and Ordinances can be viewed at: http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/one-year-moratorium-on
Steve Pleich is director of the Santa Cruz Homeless Persons Legal Assistance Project.