by Steve Pleich
The Fourth of July is the One Year Anniversary of the Freedom Sleepers Community Sleepouts at the Santa Cruz City Hall, and it is a time for local activists and advocates to pause, reflect and take stock of the successes and failures of the past year.
To their great credit, it has been the homeless community itself that has continued to spend their Tuesday nights in front of City Hall regardless of weather and in the face of unabated harassment by law enforcement.
The recent return of regular meal service by Santa Cruz Food Not Bombs has bolstered not only the spirits of the campers but also the numbers of those spending the night.
One veteran camper puts it simply: “This is our ground and as long as we are sleeping on it, we are not about to give it up.”
Indeed, the regular campers have formed a close community and have come together to demand that Santa Cruz officials, the police and the public acknowledge and respect their rights.
Despite this showing of solidarity among the homeless, little else that has happened in Santa Cruz inspires much hope for the future.
The Santa Cruz Homeless Depot Shelter program (formerly the Camp of Last Resort, begun by Rabbi Phil Posner and the subject of an earlier article in Street Spirit), has incorporated and hopes to gain some local support.
Despite the fact that both a Safe Spaces Sleeping Program and a Safe Spaces RV Parking Program were flatly rejected when these proposals came before the City Council, there remains a possibility that these emergency sheltering ideas may again be on the table.
A new Joint City/County Coordinated Committee on Homelessness is being formed and these and other sheltering concepts should receive consideration. As Rabbi Phil says, “We live in hope that our local electeds will accept the fact that unsheltered people must have somewhere to go and when that time comes, we’ll need to have programs ready to go.”
Overall, however, the situation for people experiencing homelessness ranges from very dark to dire.
The near unanimous defeat of the amendment to the camping ban offered by City Council member Don Lane, the new and more restrictive ordinances related to downtown vendors, many of whom are homeless and support themselves through their vending, and the concerted effort to drive the homeless out of the community by reducing shelter space and meal service have combined to make Santa Cruz an increasingly homeless-unfriendly place.
But as HUFF (Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom) founder Robert Norse notes, “Remarkably, our homeless brothers and sisters continue to soldier on and we as housed activists owe them nothing less than our full support.”
The Freedom Sleepers are looking forward to the local showing of the documentary shot and edited by group videographer Israel Dawson. The short film “Freedom Sleepers”’ will be part of the 10th Annual Social Documentation Thesis Documentary Screening at the Del Mar Theater in Downtown Santa Cruz on June 8. More information on the screening, the continuing Community Sleepouts and the new vendor ordinances can be found on the Freedom Sleepers website at freedomsleepers.org.
Steve Pleich is a founding member of the Freedom Sleepers who are working to repeal the camping ban in Santa Cruz.