by Steve Pleich

As has been previously reported here (“Santa Cruz Activists Join Together to Defend the Right to Sleep,” Street Spirit, February 2016), for several weeks a working group has been meeting to strategize ways to move forward in support of the Right to Sleep in Santa Cruz. The group has now introduced an amendment to Section 6.36.010 of the Municipal Code (Camping) to remove references to the act of sleeping and the use of blankets.
The proposed amendment will be heard by the Santa Cruz City Council on March 8. While the amendment does eliminate three entire sleep-related subsections of 6.36.010, including reference to vehicle sleeping, local activists understand that the amendment is far from perfect.
Says longtime local activist Steve Schnaar, “I have continued to be troubled by a provision in one of our City’s ordinances — MC Section 6.36.010(a) — that penalizes people who have no place else to go for falling asleep or covering up with a blanket while being outside late at night or early in the morning. This is not a ‘smart solution’ by any stretch of the imagination.”
Other activists have been more vocal about the lack of a broader revision of the ordinance, which has served as the primary vehicle for criminalizing people experiencing homelessness in Santa Cruz.
Says David Roknich of Indy Radio, “This amendment shouldn’t be necessary except for the narrow-minded bigotry and greed of some overly privileged individuals who have owned the government of a city that still tries to lay claim to a ‘progressive’ legacy. The camping ban should simply be made void, and striking it down should happen on humanitarian grounds, not because the same malefactors finally realize they’ve hurt their own economic interests with their stupidity and greed. This is not very diplomatic, but eventually the truth will out.”
Other activists including Robert Norse, founder of HUFF (Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom), have been even more critical. Norse is calling for a much more sweeping and substantive revision of the camping/sleeping ban to include homeless services monitoring and nightly reporting of available shelter space and a moratorium on enforcement when no shelter space is available. Norse says, “The entire minefield of anti-homeless laws needs to be bulldozed and selective enforcement abandoned.”
Although I do not disagree with the criticism, I also know that “politics is the art of the possible.” The proposed amendment addresses an extremely visceral and highly politicized issue in our community.

“Don’t Criminalize the Homeless.” A sign posted by homeless advocates in Santa Cruz.
“Don’t Criminalize the Homeless.” A sign posted by homeless advocates in Santa Cruz.

It is the hope of the working group that this amendment can be a first step in a progressive decriminalization of homelessness in Santa Cruz.
If the community can support the Right to Sleep, the next questions about where and how this right can be exercised can be addressed and answered. Says homeless and social justice activist Becky Johnson, “We have been criminalizing people experiencing homelessness in Santa Cruz for decades. Even one small step toward decriminalization would be historic. Our homeless brothers and sisters have been waiting a long time for this day.”
As mentioned, the proposed amendment is agendized for council consideration on March 8, although it is uncertain at this time whether it will be considered at an afternoon or evening session. Until then, efforts will continue to actively lobby business and community groups in support of the proposal as sound economic and public policy, as well as a call to conscience for the entire community.
The working group asks everyone who supports the Right to Sleep in Santa Cruz to email the Santa Cruz City Council at citycouncil [at] and to come to the council session on March 8 and speak in favor of the proposed amendment. There is also a petition supporters are urged to sign.
Steve Pleich is an advocate for decriminalization of people experiencing homelessness and a supporter of the Right to Rest.