Freedom Sleepers Confront a Flood Tide of Homelessness in Santa Cruz
by Linda Ellen Lemaster
[dropcap]“I[/dropcap]n their hearts they turned to each other’s hearts for refuge,
in the troubled years that came before the deluge.” — Jackson Browne
The Freedom Sleepers had already been demonstrating against the city’s anti-sleeping laws every Tuesday night for many weeks when my girlfriend and I visited the scene of the growing protest at the City Hall gardens in Santa Cruz.
We circulated around the two information tables and the little clusters of homeless sleepers and their friends participating in this once-a-week overnight protest on the parched but still garden-like City Hall grounds. The Freedom Sleepers have shown real perseverance over the past few months, and have held more than 16 overnight sleep-outs.
In one corner, signs declared: “Sleep Is A Human Necessity” and “6.36.010 Has Got to Go” — a reference to the Santa Cruz municipal ordinance that prohibits sleeping for homeless people. Two busy younger guys, dynamic in a pile of ink markers and backpacks and posterboard, were making messages into signs along the brick and stone pathway under an arbor of roses and hanging fuchsia.
The opposite front corner in the garden sheltered an older couple, seemingly sound asleep around 5 p.m., under a shady four-foot palm tree near the stone retainer wall.
We showed up while some of the homeless sleepers and most of their allies were inside attending the City Council meeting. Councilmembers were seeking more ways to make it a crime to be homeless. They’ve banned the act of sleeping outdoors in a city with a documented shortage of housing and shelter beds.
Can you believe these people? The City Council’s response to demonstrators present at the meeting was to agendize several new batches of anti-homeless draft laws and revisions, to see how they can further criminalize and exclude the city’s poor.
Instead of focusing on greater solutions to the recent loss of homeless services when the budget for the Homeless Services Center was abruptly slashed, the council evidently has decided instead to pave their pathway to criminalization. It seems the council majority has no capacity to resist the Not In My Back Yard ravings of hateful people promoting greater fear of these roofless, powerless folks.
Yet, the day after I finished this story for Street Spirit, Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane published his long letter apologizing for some of his past votes that impact homeless people here (and, in my opinion, have helped to criminalize them).
[Editor: See Mayor Lane’s letter on pages 6-7 of this issue of Street Spirit.]
Mayor Lane makes several new proposals, including changes to the sleeping ban. I want to believe this impassioned letter may push elected officials to action. I saw no concern coming from the City Council prior to the mayor’s letter about the harms and dangers created by long-term council neglect of homeless folks.
Now, the mayor’s letter is all over town and it has already triggered lots of “buzz” and maybe even action. I’m praying Lane’s words can be understood by his governmental peers and employees responsible for much of the systematically bigoted destruction of people’s lives I see on the streets of Santa Cruz.
Meanwhile, back at the plaza outside, I met several families in sleeping bags, a woman with three dogs, a dizzy singer, and another handful of single guys comparing maps and journeys.
Lucero was on her feet and on the ball with her strong voice and a good sign directed toward passing cars along the front sidewalk where, at 10 p.m., anyone demonstrating who doesn’t want a ticket or arrest would be forced to leave when police and guards come to empty the City Hall garden “park.” As has become very typical at political demonstrations in these parts, media workers also were cited by police, tripped up, and pressed to protect themselves during the first few Tuesday sleep-outs.
Years ago, the City Council passed an ordinance just to make the city government’s plaza into yet another “city park” with a curfew. Curfews for city parks begin at 10 p.m. Those grounds became a “park” by the City’s legal definition precisely to block homeless protesters from staying overnight.
From a little broader legal perspective, California’s public meeting laws and the U.S. Constitution’s promise of freedom of speech will prove stronger some day than the City of Santa Cruz’s long-enduring ban on sleeping and camping.
Just about the time of night when almost every housed person is going under their covers, Freedom Sleepers will be roused by the police, and maybe ticketed, fined or arrested. The ones who have no other legal place to go, and a few of their friends, line the sidewalk on Church Street, crowded together like sardines, until either dawn erupts or police come back for more easy pickings.
Food Not Bombs, one of the founding collaborators of Freedom Sleepers, has provided the luxury of hot meals, and their generosity is now going into the fifth month. Food Not Bombs banners are visible both across the street by the downtown library and inside the City Hall council chambers, setting a relatively high standard of both visibility and healthy living.
That night, we saw the row of regular vigilers sitting on the plaza facing traffic, sitting on a bench, leaning against the stone wall all evening, with signs in their laps. They clear out by the time sleepers are forced to either evacuate the “park” or are ticketed for a flurry of laws, including “being in a closed area.”
The sleepers convene a General Assembly at a fixed time, as needed, most Tuesdays. Other seeds of community have sprouted, and we have begun talking about how a Women’s Circle might best unfold. In recent weeks, many Freedom Sleepers, perhaps in tandem with FEMA scouts and Santa Cruz County, are advocating for and working on how to be safe when El Nino’s predicted downpour hits Monterey Bay and environs.
I see a big difference in the two approaches. Freedom Sleepers are concerned mostly about already displaced people whose lives and survival are literally on the line; while Santa Cruz County and FEMA officials are out to help secure real estate and personal property, offering rakes and sandbag kits for protecting houses and gardens for those already securely indoors. Two separate worlds.
“I’d like to see a permanent and expanding pressure group that activates students, workers, renters around this issue of conscience — the Sleeping Ban — particularly as the El Nino weather approaches,” said Robert Norse of HUFF, “while simultaneously maintaining and expanding our de facto safe sleeping zone.
Norse elaborates, “Of course, the longer term objective is ending the Sleeping, Blanket, and Camping Bans.”
HUFF (Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom), along with Common Ground: Santa Cruz Homeless Depot, Food Not Bombs, and Homeless Persons Legal Assistance Project initiated this demonstration which has since evolved into Freedom Sleepers. There was also support from local ACLU chapter board members.
The founding groups brought together a community gathering in July, a hundred strong, on the downtown Post Office steps, a place where homeless people were once allowed to sleep rough at night until too many came there. People picked a campaign launch site that evening, marching on Independence Day to City Hall plaza.
My friend and I were just casual August visitors. She brought her folk songs with lyrics customized for Freedom Sleepers and her strong, loving voice, and I brought cupcakes we had made for 50.
Nearby I saw a table offering information and petitions to sign about a “constitutional protection zone.” Someone else was flattening and stacking cardboard. By the time we left, the banana-slug-colored port-a-potty arrived and was set up across the street around 7 p.m. City staff refuses to permit bathroom use at night.
Clusters of sleeping bags dotted the front and one side of the campus. Some were set up but empty, holding the space; others had folks already halfway tucked in, reading a book or lost in quiet conversations.
Freedom Sleepers are people of all stripes, ages, beliefs. They want to overturn the selectively enforced laws enacted by the City of Santa Cruz that are being deployed to target, banish, criminalize and even crush people experiencing homelessness. And they remind us about the other class-based minority groups — youth, students, artists — who are feeling systematically shunned and pushed out of their world.
We left that evening as five meandering, uniformed security guards changed their pace and converged to greet three gas-spewing klieg lights being rolled out into the empty parking spaces fronting the vigil. The giant lights get turned on around bed time. I have serious asthma/breathing problems around such toxic fumes, so I was forced away from City Hall’s main entry during the council meeting, but not before folks found the cupcakes I brought.
City officials deploy these beacons, it appeared, to make safe and peaceful slumber even more difficult. At 10 p.m., the Freedom Sleepers are pushed onto the sidewalk — a gritty concrete “bed” I tasted in 2010. I would not wish it on anyone.
Week after week, homeless people are returning to join the vigils held by the Freedom Sleepers, where, so far, they are not being hit with the sleep/camp tickets that cost roughly $150, like they’ve been getting elsewhere in the city.
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Contact Freedom Sleepers: firstname.lastname@example.org, 800-884-1136. facebook.com/groups/freedomsleepers
Linda Ellen Lemaster is a formerly homeless woman who facilitates Housing NOW Santa Cruz. email@example.com