A few years ago, advocate for the homeless Linda Lemaster knew a family in Santa Cruz that couldn’t afford a traditional home. Instead, the family members lived and slept in their bus. Soon they couldn’t afford to keep the bus either, and were forced to sell it and split up: mother and daughter went to a shelter, father and son lived under a bridge.
“The whole family came apart,” Lemaster said with a sigh, her voice cracking with tears. “The father was really resourceful, but nobody has what it takes to run a household without a place to be, without plumbing, you know?”
The cost of living was made more difficult for the family of four by parking fines they incurred — which included fines for sleeping in their vehicle between 11:00 p.m. and 8:30 a.m., made illegal in Santa Cruz by law 6.36.010. The law also bans camping, sleeping, and using blankets on public property during those hours.
This ordinance, in conjunction with the lack of emergency shelter, makes finding a good night’s sleep a difficult task for Santa Cruz’s homeless population.
In April, the Santa Cruz Police Department listed 122 service calls regarding illegal camping. Of these, 22 resulted in citations, usually including a fine of around $20 — though subsequent citations can add up to over $100.
“There are approximately 1,000 to 1,500 homeless people in the Santa Cruz area, so it’s a pretty small number, and that’s because the police are really only citing people when they’re in very visible, problematic places,” said Councilmember Don Lane of the per capita number of citations among the homeless population. “It’s not like they’re going out and looking for people to give tickets to.”
Still, the “sleeping ban,” as it has been dubbed by activists, is an issue keeping both homeless people and sympathizers up at night. The ban went into effect in 1978, and has been stirring up controversy ever since.
Santa Cruz is certainly not the first or only California city to have a sleeping ban. This year, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is pushing to get a similar law passed, which would forbid sitting and lying on sidewalks for most of the day in California’s city by the bay, much to the chagrin of local and national activists.
Los Angeles did not allow people to sit, lie, or sleep on any public sidewalk until Jones vs. City of Los Angeles in 2006 ruled that this was unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. Despite the attention sleeping laws receive, not one Santa Cruz City Councilmember has proposed repealing the sleeping ban.
Activists from Santa Cruz’s Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom (HUFF), as well as the Human Rights Organization, have held protests and debates for over a decade with the hopes of repealing the ordinance. They have had no luck to date.
Robert Norse, founder of HUFF, suggested the ban might be an effort to make the city look more appealing.
“There’s a concerted effort to drive homeless people out of sight, at least, if not out of town,” Norse said.
Lane cites public opinion as the driving force behind the sleeping ban’s creation and longevity.
“I don’t think the majority of the people in the community want [sleeping laws] to be changed …most people have a sense that we don’t really want people to just be able to sleep anywhere,” Lane said. “It’s a real problem … there aren’t enough legal places for everyone to sleep, but the question is, does that mean people should just be able to sleep anywhere?”
Vice Mayor Ryan Coonerty suggested that because Santa Cruz residents support homeless services in other forms, repealing the sleeping ban could actually harm the community.
“Santa Cruz provides more services for homeless people than any other community in California or the country,” Coonerty said. “One of there reasons we do that is that we have community support, and a very quick way to dry up the community support is to allow people to start camping on the streets or in parks.”
Coonerty said the city offers a variety of services, including food distributions and counseling for homeless community members.
“We provide services that other cities are unwilling to provide. … In turn, we have a larger homeless population, and then, because we’ve done the right thing, we’re not allowing people to camp,” Coonerty said. “Whereas the communities that actively drive homeless people out of their communities and give them no tools to turn their lives around, aren’t criticized for having a camping ban there, because they’ve driven all the homeless people out of their community.”
Activist Lemaster said that the ban itself took a toll on the family she knew that was trying to sleep in their car.
“Little things like that ate up their ability to live as a family,” she said. “Homeless families are so at risk, there’s so many things that could go wrong to destabilize them. … One ticket can be a year’s worth of hell. I’ve just seen families pulled apart.”
Hope for Compromise?
“What’s ironic about this whole thing is that it doesn’t have to be this way,” Robert Norse said, his voice rising with passion and anger. “[Santa Cruz] needs to set up areas where homeless people can sleep and park their vehicles.”
Having specific camping and parking areas is an approach that has been tried before.
In 2000, Linda Lemaster led the Homeless Issues Task Force in Santa Cruz. The task force researched and discussed different issues plaguing homeless people in the area, then presented the City Council with a list of suggested actions it could take to help curb these problems. Among the findings was an idea to have a designated area where people can legally sleep at night without being harrassed, a so-called “Tent City,” a goal that never fully came to fruition.
“We got kind of a cold shoulder from the City Council to most of these recommendations,” Lemaster said. “Maybe they did whatever they had to formally, but they didn’t even discuss it … because most of [the recommendations] were either controversial, or the city thought it would cost something.”
Don Lane cites a different reason for not currently having designated sleeping areas in Santa Cruz.
“There have been [homeless camping sites] in the past, and, every time that the city has tried to do that, it ended up being pretty much a disaster and in disorder,” Lane explained. “Even the majority of homeless people who were staying in those camping areas started moving away from them themselves.”
According to Ryan Coonerty, the chaos would put a strain on the city and present insurmountable challenges.
“If you set up an area like that, then you are responsible for maintaining public health and safety … you’re screwed,” Coonerty said. “You’re basically telling people ‘it’s OK to camp here, and you’ll be safe,’ which is a big responsibility … both the health and safety of people was compromised.”
In spite of housing woes, there is hope for those who can’t put a roof over their heads. Shelters in Santa Cruz do offer some relief.
Shelter for Some
During easier times, Jane Cooper* lived in a rental house with her 13-year-old daughter and three sons, aged 11, five, and 10 months. Then one day, the house burned down.
“We lost everything. Pictures, keepsakes, my animals,” said Cooper, sitting in a cozy meeting area in the Santa Cruz Homeless Services Center. “We just left with what we had on. … I still have nightmares, they [the children] have nightmares all the time about the fire.”
The family didn’t have renters’ insurance, and Jane had trouble finding work as a veterinary technician. As a result, the Cooper family was forced to stay in a slew of hotels, and then an empty rental house owned by Jane’s aunt — “We were sleeping on a hardwood floor,” Cooper said.
On Feb. 17 of this year, Jane got onto the waiting list to stay at the Rebele Family Shelter in Santa Cruz, part of a complex of shelters run by the Homeless Services Center. After a couple month’s wait, the Cooper family moved in during early April. They have been living there ever since.
“I love it here. I love it. It’s been very, very positive for me and my kids,” Cooper said with a smile. “It’s a lot of burden off our shoulders, just knowing that we have a place to lie down and food to eat. And everyone’s been really supportive.”
The Rebele Shelter, which receives funding from the federal, state, and city level, as well as private donations, houses families like the Coopers for between three to six months, usually around 28 families at a time. The families come from a variety of different situations.
“We get families who are sleeping in their cars, who are couch surfing, who are in hotels, who have a family member to stay with. So it really depends on the family,” said Sonya Goodpaster, a case manager for the shelter. “Part of the case plan here is getting sustainable, long-term housing, so we work with different agencies for that. … We’ve also had a couple of families who faced different barriers, as far as immigration and employment and whatnot, and have had to go to different shelters.”
Shelter Director Letita Schwarz said that about 85 percent of families do find secure housing after leaving. She also noted one condition required to stay at any of the Services Center’s shelters, which include the Paul Lee Loft Shelter and the Page Smith Community House, along with the Rebele Family Shelter.
“We do require that this is a clean and sober place,” Schwarz said. “So, if they have prior drug history, I will drug test them before coming into the shelter.”
Advocate for the homeless Becky Johnson said that this policy unfairly discriminates.
“Food, shelter, and sanitation should be provided for anyone who is without, just out of basic human dignity,” Johnson said.
Despite the success of the shelters, Goodpaster emphasized that Santa Cruz lacks adequate emergency shelter.
“You get people who call the shelter wanting emergency housing, like ‘I need a place tomorrow night or tonight.’ And, unfortunately, our program is a waitlist,” Goodpaster said. “I think one of the obstacles that I’m facing today is a single father with a 15-year-old son. … He calls all the places and they’re all full, he wants to know where he can go.”
There is the Santa Cruz National Guard Armory, which provides emergency shelter, but only during the winter months, and Schwarz said it’s currently lacking funding.
Vice Mayor Coonerty said it is unclear how much of Santa Cruz’s population is without housing, and called the statistic “difficult to calculate.”
“Some homeless people are sleeping on couches, or hotel rooms, or other places,” he said.
Coonerty also said that no one can receive citations for camping or sleeping in their vehicles on nights when shelters are completely full.
According to the City of Santa Cruz Municipal Code, however, “Any citation issued for a violation of this chapter shall be dismissed by the City Attorney in the interest of justice if, at the time of citation issuance, the winter shelter at the Santa Cruz National Guard Armory is filled to capacity.” This means that campers only have this particular legal protection in the winter months.
Additionally, Linda Lemaster said that because many homeless people do not know this information, they end up getting tickets anyway, and don’t have adequate information to contest the charges.
“If they call the Homeless Resource Service Center, and they say ‘No, we have no beds’ … then those people’s tickets get dropped,” Lemaster said. “But how many [homeless people] know that?”
“Not One Face of Homelessness”
Cooper hopes to rent a house when she leaves the Rebele Shelter in a few months. Until then, she says she’s realizing more every day that being homeless is not always the individual’s fault.
“Everybody has their different stories. Some people lost their homes to foreclosure, some people lost their homes [from being] laid off, our house burned down,” Cooper said. “I mean, we’re all normal people,” she added with a laugh.
Rebele Family Shelter Director Letita Schwarz said that people don’t always end up on the street because of poor decisions, and that, sometimes, it’s simply a matter of “unforseen circumstances.”
“There’s not one face of homelessness,” Schwarz said.“There’s not one picture of who that person is, or what that person looks like, or what their circumstances have been. I think there’s a lot of misconception that someone has done the wrong things or made the wrong bad choices, and that’s why they’re here.”
The debate over the sleeping ban will most likely continue for years, and shelters will do their best to accommodate people in need. Meanwhile, activists will keep working to see that every homeless person has a safe place to sleep legally. According to the Washington Post, the average life expectancy for homeless people in the U.S. in 2006 was 51 years, compared to 78 for the average American.
“The homeless death rate [in the U.S.] is almost 20 years premature,” activist Johnson said. “Robbing a homeless person of sleep ultimately deprives them of life.”
*Name has been changed.
Originally Published June 3, 2010
© 2010 City on a Hill Press, Vol 44 issue 30