by Steve Pleich
Beginning in mid-May, Santa Cruz has conducted a concerted campaign to drive homeless people out of and away from public spaces, particularly the City Hall grounds and the adjacent Central Library.
Since the first Freedom Sleepers Community Sleepout in July 2015, homeless folks have gathered daily at City Hall to socialize and check in with other members of the unhoused community.
Fueled in part by the now 104 weeks of the Tuesday night Freedom Sleepers protest, which in turn spawned a nightly sleepout at City Hall by a group dubbed the Survival Sleepers, the Santa Cruz City Manager has unilaterally reduced not only the hours of access to these traditional public spaces, but also has taken the extraordinary step of strictly limiting any activities in and around City Hall and the Central Library grounds.
Hours of park access were reduced from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. every day to 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., with no access permitted at all on Saturday and Sunday. Even during those hours, sitting or gathering at City Hall has been virtually prohibited.
These new restrictions are nothing less than an old-fashioned “turf war” with the homeless desperately trying to hold onto one of the last public gathering spots available to them since they were deemed persona non grata in San Lorenzo Park and the river levee area.
This most recent push has prompted many homeless residents and their supporters to consider several ways to push back, including calls for a council moratorium on the new restrictions, hosting community events and possible legal action.
One such event will be a Know Your Rights for the Houseless Forum sponsored by the ACLU of Northern California, Santa Cruz county chapter. It will be held on Tuesday, July 18, at 7:00 p.m. at Louden Nelson Community Center in Santa Cruz.
Homelessness has been taken up as a priority issue by ACLU Santa Cruz. This forum reflects the deep concern over the deteriorating landscape of homelessness locally.
One ACLU member and longtime civil liberties advocate remarked, “Among the rights our federal constitution was intended to protect is the right to access and use of open and public spaces and our City Hall is but one example of historically and legally recognized public space. The recent limitation of access to the area around and including City Hall, and by extension the grounds of the adjacent Central Library, raises serious questions of abridgement of substantive civil liberties.”
Prior to the imposition of these new and wholly restrictive limitations on public access, anecdotal testimony was offered by Santa Cruz City Council members and the City Manager in support of the opinion that continued access between the hours of 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. may adversely impact the safety of city employees working in or passing through the area in the course of their duties.
However, many Survival Sleepers disputed the contention that their presence at City Hall constituted a danger of any kind.
Said Survival Sleeper spokesperson Dreamcatcher, “We have neither seen nor are aware of any data, statistics, or reliable evidence that would justify the restriction on public safety grounds. This is simply not the case, nor has it ever been.”
Freedom Sleepers are calling for the Santa Cruz City Council to impose a moratorium on the new restricted hours of access, at least until the council has conducted a thorough investigation into the facts of these claims.
As a third option, local advocates for the houseless community have reached out to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty for legal aid in a potential civil lawsuit charging the City Manager with exceeding his executive authority and violation of the constitutionally guaranteed rights to free speech and assembly.
The houseless plaintiffs are stating that “historically, many areas within our city have been recognized as public spaces and among the most historic and notable is our City Hall and its surrounding grounds. The new restrictions are not reasonable as to place, time and manner and are, rather, extreme and unreasonable under the totality of the circumstances.”
Not coincidentally, these new restrictions have come at a time when the local Food Not Bombs chapter has been pressured to abandon or scale back its program. For the past several years, Food Not Bombs has provided meals and a gathering place for the houseless every Saturday and Sunday at the Downtown Post Office, serving up to 150 meals each day.
Says international Food Not Bombs co-founder Keith McHenry, “We do more than just provide a nutritious vegan meal to those in need. We provide support and encouragement because, at the end of the day, the homeless community must stand up for itself and assert their human rights. If we are ever to create real change in our community, it’s crucial that the homeless see us fighting for our space right alongside them.”
ACLU Know Your Rights
for the Houseless Forum
Tuesday, July 18, 7:00 p.m.
Louden Nelson Community Center 301 Center Street, Santa Cruz.