Lawsuit Filed Over ‘Stay-Away’ Law in Santa Cruz

Homeless people in Santa Cruz have precious little voice at City Hall, and much less in the court system. They have been pushed around and forced out of public spaces. It’s time to push back. That is why advocates have filed a lawsuit to challenge the city’s “stay away order.”

by Steve Pleich

The Homeless Persons Legal Assistance Project (HPLAP) served a lawsuit on the City of Santa Cruz on January 22, challenging the constitutionality of the recently passed “stay away order” ordinance (Municipal Code Section 13.08.100, revised).

The lawsuit seeks a preliminary injunction to enjoin the City of Santa Cruz from enforcement of the ordinance until the court hears the full case. HPLAP is bringing this suit on behalf of the homeless community for whom the parks, beaches and open spaces in Santa Cruz are traditionally places of rest, relaxation and communal association.

People experiencing homelessness in Santa Cruz have been progressively pushed around and forced out of public spaces. It’s time to push back. Our homeless community has precious little voice at City Hall, much less in our court system. My hope as director of HPLAP is that this lawsuit will give voice to the voiceless.

The Complaint alleges in part that the use of parks and open spaces for free assembly “are protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and by the California Constitution and Defendants’ restrictions as to place, time and manner embodied in Section 13.08.100 are not reasonable under the circumstances.”

It further alleges that “the ordinance as applied to Plaintiff’s activities … are based upon violations of other municipal ordinances which are so vague that they violate basic due process standards in that a person of ordinary intelligence cannot reasonably know what he or she is legally permitted to do under the statutes.”

Linda Lemaster, a longtime homeless advocate and founder of Housing NOW Santa Cruz, put it this way: “I am troubled about the way so many ‘behavioral laws’ fold one on top of the next in an attempt to banish people for being homeless. This new ordinance goes further than most, even further than the sleeping/camping ban here, in doing away with due process while criminalizing the status of homelessness for people in the City’s parks and public places.”

As if to illustrate this point, on February 19, the Policy Advocacy Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, released a research report entitled “California’s New Vagrancy Laws: The Growing Enactment and Enforcement of Anti-Homeless Laws in the Golden State.” The study documents the increasing criminalization of homeless people in California through local laws mimicking shameful vagrancy laws of past eras that targeted people of color, migrants, and the physically disabled.

The study points out that many of the new laws and ordinances are “status” crimes, meaning a person can be adjudged guilty simply because he or she has the “status” of being homeless.

Homeless advocates and people experiencing homelessness believe that the new ordinance in Santa Cruz is the latest turn of the screw in the progressive targeting of homeless sleepers. Indeed, local neighborhood groups are pushing for gentrification that often creates a climate of exclusion for the less fortunate and unpropertied residents.

The Santa Cruz courthouse is the arena of a new struggle between homeless people and the city officials trying to banish them.

The Santa Cruz courthouse is the arena of a new struggle between homeless people and the city officials trying to banish them.

 

HUFF (Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom) founder Robert Norse observes, “The new expanded Stay-Away Ordinance simply waives away any constitutional protections homeless people have to be considered innocent until proven guilty. It gives unbridled power to rangers and cops to target the unhoused, with laws against sleeping at night, smoking, and being in a park after dark.

“Not only can those engaging in life-sustaining behavior face hundreds of dollars in fines, but now they can immediately be banned without judicial process or recourse from large swaths of the city for periods of up to one year — all this without being found guilty of any crime, much less even the concocted ‘crimes’ for which they are charged.”

The newly imposed “stay away order” ordinance has cast a pall over the homeless community in general and particularly over those who have historically found rest and association with others in city-owned parks.

“My friends and I come to the park most days to catch up on the latest news, chat and get some much-needed rest,” says longtime homeless Santa Cruz resident Donnie B. “We can still do this, but now we are uneasy about our presence and that defeats the whole purpose of being in the park.”

He adds, “We should have the same rights and access as any other person, but that seems to have changed for the worse.”

The HPLAP Legal Team, led by Attorney Judith Barry of Aptos, will be bringing the case to court in early March for a hearing on Plaintiff’s Ex Parte Application for Temporary Restraining Order Preliminary Injunction. HPLAP is confident that the case will succeed on the merits and is asking for community-wide support as the case makes its way through the judicial process.

Steve Pleich is the director of the Homeless Persons Legal Assistance Project which has been providing pro bono legal services to people experiencing homelessness in Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz County since 2011.

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