by Steve Pleich
In response to recent drastic cuts in homeless services, a group of grass-roots activists and concerned citizens have come together in Santa Cruz to petition the local government to repeal the Camping Ban and create safe sleeping places for unsheltered persons.
The group has organized a series of actions, including Community Camp Outs at the City Hall, to protest the increasing criminalization of homeless people.
Freedom Sleepers is a coalition of groups, including Santa Cruz Food Not Bombs, HUFF (Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom), Homeless Persons Legal Assistance Project and the Camp of Last Resort.
Freedom Sleeper and HUFF co-founder Robert Norse puts the goal of the group in perspective. “The right to sleep is the right to live,” Norse said. “This is a cry of conscience. If enough people hear it and join us, things will change.”
Freedom Sleepers takes its name from the Freedom Riders of the 1960s. Founding member Rabbi Phil Posner decries the sleeping ban and the lack of safe sleeping spaces in the city.
“Santa Cruz has 116 acres of parks, including two reserved for dogs to play,” Posner said. “Having to sleep on a sidewalk is both uncomfortable and unhealthy. Surely we can spare a few acres where people may safely sleep, without fear of breaking the law!
“As a 1961 Freedom Rider, I served 39 days in the Mississippi penitentiary fighting discrimination. I and others will continue to resist discriminatory local ordinances which forbid individuals a place and opportunity to sleep. We call upon our City Council to find a way to alleviate homeless suffering.”
Freedom Sleepers held their third group campout at Santa Cruz City Hall on July 26. Several dozen people slept in the City Hall courtyard from sunset until the following morning. The July 26 sleep-in was preceded by campouts on July 4 and July 19, which were organized after the Homeless Services Center announced in June it was having severe budget issues and would be losing a significant amount of state-administered federal funding.
In response to the imminent loss of a wide variety of day services, a coalition of homeless rights groups, including Santa Cruz Food Not Bombs, joined together to host a series of free breakfasts next to the center. The City Hall campouts are the next step in that response and are now focused on the broader issues surrounding the criminalization of homelessness.
Says Santa Cruz Food Not Bombs co-founder Abbi Samuels, “Being a part of the Freedom Sleepers actions is where we need to be as an organization that works for social justice. We will continue this fight until justice is done and people can safely and legally sleep.”
The coordinated actions have drawn some response from City Hall. Santa Cruz City Councilmember Micah Posner says that he is willing to place the repeal of the camping ban before the council for a full public hearing.
“My intention,” he said, “is to place the issue on the City Council’s agenda this fall by asking the council to either repeal the anti-sleeping ordinances or begin a process to identify a place in the city for homeless people to sleep. If you don’t want to locate a place for them in the city, what makes you think that they will disappear? If you do support a legal place, what would it be like?”
Freedom Sleepers is asking the entire community to join them in these ongoing actions, but is mindful that participation at the community campouts is an act of civil disobedience because it involves the violation of multiple local ordinances.
One such ordinance closes the courtyard at City Hall to the public between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Another is the primary focus of these actions: the city’s camping ban, which prohibits sleeping in public with or without bedding between the hours of 11 p.m. and 8:30 a.m.
But even with this admonition, Freedom Sleepers believe the issue is important enough to put themselves in harm’s way. Says longtime homeless advocate and attorney Ed Frey, “Sleep is not just a constitutional right, it is a basic human right whose denial is the very definition of cruel and unusual punishment.”
Freedom Sleepers will continue the Community Campouts at City Hall when the City Council goes back into session after a July hiatus. The first action is scheduled for Tuesday, August 11.
Steve Pleich is a Freedom Sleeper and an advocate with the Santa Cruz Homeless Persons Advocacy Project.