by Steve Pleich
The defeat on March 8 of the proposed amendment to the local sleeping ban by a 5-2 vote of the Santa Cruz City Council was extremely disappointing to advocates for people experiencing homelessness — but not entirely unexpected.
It was the hope of some that the passage of the amendment would, at the very least, signal a willingness on the part of the community at large to redefine the relationship between the housed and unhoused in our community, as well as present what some were calling a “once in a generation” opportunity to legitimize the basic need for and right to sleep.
One speaker at the City Council session called the proposed amendment “both sound public policy and an appeal to the better angels of our nature.”
Of the several dozen residents who spoke during the public comment period, only three spoke out against the amendment.
Regrettably, and again not surprisingly, the council members were not moved to have their votes reflect the voices of the people.
For decades, the city has progressively sought to criminalize homelessness and the recent vote is little more than a sad confirmation of that well-established and deeply entrenched policy.
One longtime observer commented directly following the vote that “now our community is officially homeless unfriendly.” And while activists and ordinary residents alike are doing considerable soul-searching, the immediate future is not without some hope.
In reaction to this latest refusal by local government officials to recognize even the most basic human rights for people experiencing homelessness, several things happened almost immediately.
Some residents sent angry letters or emails to council members or issued passionate public statements decrying the council’s decision.
Others, such as members of the Association of Faith Communities of Santa Cruz County, which had unanimously endorsed the amendment, organized a working group to brainstorm and consider options for further action.
One positive offshoot of the amendment’s defeat was the proposal of a Joint City/County Task Force on Homelessness which is being put forward, ironically enough, by three of the council members who voted against the amendment.
And though there is always understandable suspicion about the efficacy of the task force model, there is a belief that recommendations in support of revisiting previously defeated initiatives like the safe spaces sleeping program and recreational vehicle parking program, may come from the work of such a group.
Historically in Santa Cruz, we have seen both productive and negligible results from task forces, but some activists feel that a grassroots approach to developing safe sleeping spaces has not met with any significant success and so are willing to consider other more institutional options.
But there is strong disagreement as to strategy even among local activists. Says Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom (HUFF) founder Robert Norse, “We should be building on the shoulders of those who pioneered the direct action approach to homeless activism, not relying on the approval of the powerful.” Many agree with Norse’s point.
The resolution to create this new Task Force is set for hearing on the Santa Cruz City Council agenda on April 12, and there will certainly be extensive public input concerning formation of the group, the scope of the work, and the process by which community members will be appointed to serve. As always, we continue to live in hope.
Steve Pleich is an advocate for people experiencing homelessness in Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz County.