by Steve Pleich
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]dvocates for people experiencing homelessness have long lobbied for the right of the unsheltered to a peaceful night’s sleep in a safe environment. As Santa Cruz attorney and activist Ed Frey says, “The right to sleep is not only a human right and a constitutional right, it is essential to the physical and psychological well-being of every person, housed or not.”
The recent effort to establish a safe sleeping space for homeless people in Santa Cruz is being led by Rabbi Phil Posner, whose son Micah Posner sits on the Santa Cruz City Council.
The vision of a “Camp of Last Resort” is founded on Rabbi Posner’s belief that the right of every citizen to have a place to sleep is fundamental to our nation’s concept of life, justice and the pursuit of happiness.
He says, “We know that there’s probably close to 3,500 men, women and children unsheltered in our community at any given time without a secure place to sleep at night. The Camp of Last Resort is an opportunity to address this situation in a substantive, community-wide way.”
Rabbi Posner explains, “In proposing this partial solution to homelessness in Santa Cruz, we appreciate that there are community programs that are successfully providing other forms of housing and shelter and see the idea of a public camp site as augmenting those important programs.”
The camp proposal was created in response to the lack of more permanent housing for the homeless community in Santa Cruz. Supporters believe that a camp (or camps) of last resort will at least provide shelter for some of the thousands who are presently found illegally hunkering down on streets, trails or along the river.
Although Rabbi Posner freely admits that such a camp of last resort would not be perfectly safe or orderly, he is confident that it will provide a far healthier environment with less crime and violence then the unregulated and chaotic situation that presently exists.
Supporters of the program are seeking approval for a six-month pilot camp. They are calling for the City and County of Santa Cruz to designate one or more of the city parks, possibly a part of San Lorenzo Park, as a place where individuals may bed down for the night. The proposal further calls for the City and County to join together to support and fund this park project by providing large tarps or some other form of public shelter, along with access to bathroom facilities.
At the end of the trial period, representatives of the homeless community, camp organizers, and city and county officials would review the program and decide whether to terminate the camp or continue the project for a longer period of time.
The proposal holds out the promise of a safe haven for people experiencing homelessness in Santa Cruz, but also requires a degree of commitment and accountability on the part of participants.
Park sleepers would agree that the sleeping area would be limited to sleeping bags, blankets and personal belongings. Camping would be permitted only within set overnight hours. No tents or cooking equipment would be permitted.
This restriction aims to head off mainstream objections to an officially approved “tent city” which has long been an unresolved bone of contention between neighborhood groups, government officials and homeless advocates.
Rabbi Posner is realistic about how personal behavior will affect the success or failure of the proposed camp.
He says, “Each of our campers must understand that his or her personal behavior will impact the success of this Camp of Last Resort and it is essential that each person respect the rights of others who also use this park. The social interaction between park sleepers and other community members who use the parks will determine in large part the long-term success or failure of our idea.”
Advocates for people experiencing homelessness believe that 2015 may finally bring some long-awaited progress on the issue of homeless rights.
With Warming Stations opening to provide warm, safe spaces on very cold nights, with Safe Spaces Recreational Vehicle and Sanctuary Village programs moving forward, and with the continuing work of the 180/2020 and Smart Solutions on Homelessness initiatives, this coming year holds great promise.
Perhaps longtime homeless advocate Linda Lemaster, the founder of Housing NOW Santa Cruz, says it best. “The new year is full of hope — hope that we can find a place in our community for people experiencing homelessness, and a place for them in our hearts as well.”
Rabbi Posner and his supporters are currently gathering petition signatures in advance of a full presentation to city and county officials. Contact Rabbi Phil Posner at email@example.com.
An online petition also has been created: https://www.credomobilize.com/petitions/petition-to-establish-a-camp-of-last-resort
Steve Pleich is an advocate for the Santa Cruz Homeless Persons Advocacy Project.