by Steve Pleich
Houseless activists in Santa Cruz, in part emboldened by the recent large marches and rallies around the nation in resistance to the policies of the Trump administration, are banding together to organize a major march in support of the houseless residents of the community.
The “Housing for All — No Penalty for Poverty” rally and march is set for May 9 and brings together shelter, housing, rent control and anti-sleeping ban activists across a broad spectrum.
Says organizer Rabbi Philip M. Posner, who spent 39 days in jail in Mississippi in 1961 as part of the civil rights movement, “I view this as a call to conscience for our entire community. A legal place to sleep is a human right. Criminalizing the homeless amounts to penalizing people for being poor.”
Posner and his son Micah plan to sleep out at City Hall after the demonstration in solidarity. They are inviting people with and without homes to bring sleeping bags and join them in the unsanctioned act of sleeping on public property.
The march and rally will begin at the Santa Cruz County Courthouse at 3:30 p.m. and march to the Downtown Post Office, the site of several recent actions protesting cyclone fencing that has been installed around the building, severely restricting the area used every weekend by Santa Cruz Food Not Bombs to feed hundreds of local houseless residents.
Marchers will then proceed to City Hall where activists will address the Santa Cruz City Council. The march and rally is centered on four core demands: (1) an increase in available emergency shelter beds; (2) affordable housing for all; (3) an end to the sleeping/camping ban; and (4) an immediate freeze on rental increases that have worked to drive a wedge between city residents and students.
Organizer and former Santa Cruz City Councilmember Micah Posner said, “While the federal government continues its efforts to eradicate the social safety net, the cost of housing in Santa Cruz continues to rise, creating an unstable situation locally, and leaving many of our poorest residents without homes. Local action to reduce the cost of housing and provide homes for all is long overdue.”
The recent closure of the seasonal AFC Emergency Winter Shelter Program (as reported in the March 2017 issue of Street Spirit) has left many houseless residents without any alternative but to camp out in violation of the local ban on sleeping and camping.
Sherry (last name withheld to avoid persecution by City officials) has been sleeping at City Hall for a week since the winter shelter closed. “At least here,” she said, “I feel a little bit safer. It’s public and there are people around. Plus, I like supporting other people who are in the same situation as me — without any legal place to sleep.”
Since Max doesn’t have another place to sleep anyway, his nightly presence at City Hall is also a political statement. “I want them to see me here in the morning,” he said. “I want them to see homeless people here until they do something about it. We need to be strong and visible.”
The continuous Tuesday night protest at City Hall by the Freedom Sleepers, now in its 94th week, has inspired dozens of houseless residents to begin sleeping on the sidewalk in front of City Hall every night. Called the “Survival Sleepers,” this group now constitutes the front line of activism in which the houseless community is taking the lead.
Event organizer and HUFF (Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom) co-founder Robert Norse is calling for nightly support for the sleepers.
“It has always been about members of the houseless community standing up for themselves and taking action against the machine that criminalizes them for simply being,” he said. “As houseless activists, we are in awe of their courage and determination in the face of so much injustice. Our planned action is solidarity with them, as it should be.”