by Alex Darocy
On August 11, community members in Santa Cruz held their fifth in a series of sleep-outs organized at City Hall to protest local laws that make it illegal for homeless people to sleep in public. Police arrived at midnight and issued citations to many of the demonstrators who were attempting to sleep in the courtyard as an act of civil disobedience.
Police also issued 24-hour stay-away orders to at least two of those present, and a journalist who has been documenting the whole series of protests was arrested and taken to jail. After police left, most of the protesters remained and slept on the sidewalk until the next morning.
Undaunted by the arrests and citations, demonstrators returned to City Hall and carried out their next action one week later, on the evening of Tuesday, August 18, followed by still another sleepout on August 25.
The courtyard area of Santa Cruz City Hall is closed to the public at night, which is one of the issues addressed by homeless rights demonstrators. Their desire is to see city parks opened at night so that people without homes will have a place to go where they are not targeted by police.
Another focus of the protests has been the local Sleeping/Camping Ban, which prohibits sleeping in public in the city (with or without setting up bedding) between the hours of 11 p.m. and 8:30 a.m. The ordinance also criminalizes sleeping in cars.
The sleepout on August 11 may have been the first time the city’s stay-away ordinance in local parks has been used against political protesters and journalists.
Many of those participating in the campouts are now calling themselves the “Freedom Sleepers.” They first arrived at City Hall at 3 p.m. for the August 11 protest. The weather was warm and some individuals took advantage of the solar shower set up by booth organizers in the courtyard.
A duo played music in the courtyard through the campers’ PA system as the City Council meeting began inside. Adjacent to council chambers, snacks were provided on a Food Not Bombs table, which also displayed crates marked, “Free Produce & Groceries.”
Later in the afternoon, the campers made their first appearance at a Santa Cruz City Council meeting. They have been holding the sleepouts at City Hall since July, but the council had been out of session for summer vacation. During the public oral communications period, they each used their two-minute turn at the council podium to read sections from a recent statement of interest filed by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in a legal case involving an ordinance which bans sleeping and camping in public places in Boise, Idaho.
Activists in Santa Cruz, as well as those opposing sleeping bans in other cities across the country, have applauded the DOJ’s involvement in the Boise case, and hope this will lead to the repeal of the ordinances.
The DOJ is taking the position that laws that criminalize homelessness violate the “Cruel and Unusual Punishment” clause of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S Constitution. “Pursuant to that clause, the Supreme Court has held that laws that criminalize an individual’s status, rather than specific conduct, are unconstitutional,” the statement of interest states.
The Department of Justice’s statement of interest also notes that under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the federal government may enforce the rights of individuals to be free from “unconstitutional and abusive policing.” The DOJ also mentioned in its conclusion that the lack of available space in homeless shelters should be a measure of whether camping ordinances can be enforced:
“For the reasons stated above, the Court should adopt the analysis in Jones to evaluate Boise’s anti-camping and disorderly conduct ordinances as applied to Plaintiffs in this case. If the Court finds that it is impossible for homeless individuals to secure shelter space on some nights because no beds are available, no shelter meets their disability needs, or they have exceeded the maximum stay limitations, then the Court should also find that enforcement of the ordinances under those circumstances criminalizes the status of being homeless and violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.”
The public was only allowed 30 minutes to speak by the Santa Cruz City Council, and some of the sleep activists were not given any chance to address the council. The meeting eventually adjourned at 10 p.m.
Shortly after that, the campers began to spread out in the courtyard and turn in for the night. Some of the protesters have houses of their own to go to, while others in the group are houseless and live on the street.
Police conducted a raid on the sleepout at around midnight. When they arrived, one man was sleeping next to his wheelchair, which he parked on the walkway near the entrance to council chambers. He was cited, but he maintained his ground and slept in the same location until morning.
About ten officers of the Santa Cruz Police Department, led by Sgt. Forbus, arrived during the raid. Forbus appeared to be videorecording protesters with an Apple iPad device. Several sheriff’s deputies responded as well, but not until after the courtyard had already been cleared by the SCPD.
Many of the Freedom Sleepers were issued citations for being in the courtyard after hours and were told to move to the narrow portion of the sidewalk in front of City Hall. The sidewalk, however, was not a safe zone either, and people were issued citations for obstructing the sidewalk.
During the raid, videographer Israel Dawson was abruptly arrested while in the act of recording and documenting the protest. As they handcuffed his wrists together from behind, police accused him of walking away from them when they were trying to get his name. He was booked into county jail on the charge of resisting arrest.
Dawson’s assistant, Lauren Benson, was holding a boom microphone that was wired to Dawson’s video camera at the time of the arrest. She was issued a citation for being in the City Hall courtyard after hours, in addition to a 24-hour stay-away order.
Dawson and Benson have been documenting the series of sleepouts for Dawson’s final project in the Social Documentation Master of Arts program at UC Santa Cruz.
Homeless rights advocate Robert Norse was also issued a 24-hour stay-away order by police after he entered the courtyard area and walked along the main pathway to council chambers. He argued it was the public’s right to use the pathway to access the City Council agenda, but was issued a citation by police regardless.
The park’s stay-away ordinance was adopted by the Santa Cruz City Council in 2013 as a method of eliminating “problem” behavior in public parks. Under the ordinance, a park user can potentially be banned for 24 hours after receiving one citation of any type in a city park.
Repeated citations can lead to a person being banned from a park for up to a year, and a violation of a stay-away order can result in a misdemeanor arrest, which is punishable by jail time.
After the police finished the raid and left, several individuals did return to the courtyard area, but most in the group decided to sleep on the sidewalk in front of City Hall that evening, where they stayed until the morning.