Santa Cruz Mayor Questions Anti-Homeless Laws, Calls for Compassion

Where is a person who attended Santa Cruz High 15 years ago and who is now broke and troubled and living on the streets supposed to sleep tonight? What purpose is served when an unsheltered, impoverished person gets a citation for sleeping outside? Is that having any positive impact on homelessness?

Editor: Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane’s open letter questions the failed approach of criminalizing homeless people and calls for more compassion. Recently, the U.S. Department of Justice condemned laws that criminalize homelessness as “cruel and unusual punishment.” Also, HUD officials warned cities they will lose federal funds if they continue to criminalize homeless people. And in Santa Cruz, Freedom Sleepers are carrying out a highly visible protest of the city’s sleeping ban—right outside City Hall.

An Open Letter to my colleagues in local government and in the Santa Cruz community about the latest challenges in addressing homelessness … as winter approaches.

by Mayor Don Lane

As I write this letter, the City Council I belong to is about to take up a variety of measures related to homelessness. Some of these items will be discussed this week. Others will presumably be discussed over the next few months. With winter coming soon and this set of issues once again coming to the top of the Santa Cruz community’s agenda, I’d like to outline a framework for looking at these issues and make some specific proposals.

[Editor: At this point, we skip past the first several paragraphs on local homeless service programs.]

In contrast to the good news at the county government level, the City of Santa Cruz has reduced its funding commitment for homelessness programs even as the County has increased its funding substantially. This City reduction was not done to single out homeless services for budget reductions— the cuts came to almost all human services programs. However valid those reasons for this reduction, it is a real problem that the reduction in City funding for homeless services has been significant.

The Daytime Essential Services program at the Homeless Services Center has been severely curtailed due to the loss of key state grant funding. This means hundreds of people without homes have lost regular access to breakfast and dinner meals and to sanitation facilities including restrooms and showers. It also means many people who had a somewhat protected place to spend their days are now passing their days in public spaces and neighborhoods all around the community.

I know some people might have imagined that, if day services at HSC were severely restricted or eliminated, that the community problems associated with homelessness would diminish and that many people living on the street would go away from Santa Cruz. The verdict on this idea seems to be in — and homelessness did not go away. (My judgment on this is based on reports from all over the community suggesting that people who appear to be homeless are still present all over town and the burden placed on the community by extensive homelessness has not diminished significantly.)

The Paul Lee Loft Shelter at HSC also lost substantial funding this year and has adapted to grant funding requirements by changing its role from a short term emergency shelter to a different kind of interim housing program. The Loft Shelter had been the main year-around emergency shelter for adults in the Santa Cruz area and it is no longer a contributor to meeting our short term shelter needs. Despite a fairly widespread misconception, we’ve never had a lot of emergency shelter for adults in the City of Santa Cruz. And now we have even less. No matter how you slice it, during most of the year, there are literally hundreds of adults without an indoor space to sleep at night.

It gets even worse. Because HSC has had to cut so much program and so much staffing, without additional funding, it will not be staffed and equipped to be the operator of Santa Cruz County’s Winter Shelter Program (at the National Guard Armory in DeLaveaga Park.) HSC will need tens of thousands of dollars of new funding to operate a Winter Shelter Program.

Even if our city and county come up with enough funding to sustain the Winter Shelter Program, when the weather turns bad (as in very heavy El Niño rains) the Winter Shelter will not be sufficient. It can serve about 100 adults. There are several hundred unsheltered individuals in the immediate Santa Cruz area.

It’s also important to note here what is probably the worst news of all: rental housing costs are skyrocketing. It’s widely agreed that our area is experiencing a housing affordability crisis that is likely worse than any past housing crisis we’ve seen. People, mainly people with jobs, are being priced out of their rental housing situations every day. This suggests that both a potential increase in homelessness could emerge and that it will be more difficult than ever to move local people off of the streets and into housing.

Last but not least in the bad news category: we are continuing to experience tremendous litter and waste disposal problems along with environmental damage as a result of careless actions by people camping in our parks and open spaces. The City has sought to manage this problem by increasing ranger and police interventions and through the issuance of citations — especially camping citations. The number of camping and sleeping citations issued this year has increased tremendously compared to previous years.

Yet hundreds of individuals continue to sleep in our parks and open space lands every night. I think we have a failure of policy and practice on multiple levels. a) Our camping enforcement activities are not substantially reducing the number of people sleeping in these public spaces. b) The environmental damage and litter damage persists. c) We have more citations being issued that end up having little deterrent effect while consuming much law enforcement time.

 

Santa Cruz police roust Freedom Sleepers during the sleep-out protests at Santa Cruz City Hall. Alex Darocy photo

Santa Cruz police roust Freedom Sleepers during the sleep-out protests at Santa Cruz City Hall. Alex Darocy photo

 

Beyond what I’ve categorized as good news and bad news, there is another significant piece of news. The federal government has, in a variety of ways, signaled that it will not provide federal homelessness funding to localities that enforce laws against sleeping outside when those who are sleeping outside have no legal alternative. The feds have also started to intervene in court cases that question local laws that prohibit sleeping in public places for people who have no place else to sleep.

The City of Santa Cruz has been able to maneuver through this legal situation in recent years. Several years ago, the City Council worked with the City Attorney to set up a system whereby people who had sought emergency shelter but were turned away for lack of space could have sleeping and camping citations dismissed. This has been less than a perfect system but at least it tried to avoid penalizing people who had made an effort to avoid sleeping outside.

Now this model is becoming less functional because there is almost no drop-in emergency shelter in our city. (In the non-winter season — April to November — there are something like 15 to 30 unrestricted emergency shelter beds in Santa Cruz) It has become extraordinarily difficult for any homeless adult to find any emergency shelter. If court rulings continue to hold that penalizing people for sleeping outside when they have no alternative is unconstitutional, Santa Cruz (and hundreds of cities around the country) will no longer be able to enforce this kind of ordinance.

A related issue which has surfaced locally, partially in the context of our city council’s consideration of RV parking regulations, is the reality that many people without homes sleep in their vehicles. Courts have begun to wade into this issue, too, and the general trend seems to be that cities might not be able to restrict people from sleeping in their vehicle if their vehicle is in every other way compliant with the law. When Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo tried to ban people without homes from sleeping in vehicles, lawsuits ensued and both cities were required to make some allowance for sleeping in vehicles.

So we have quite a tangled web of challenges and circumstances to take on as we wrestle with homelessness.

As I mentioned before, our local governments have adopted a strategic plan that I believe provides an excellent road map for how we can successfully reduce homelessness in our county. It’s based on well-tested models that are working elsewhere. These models are now showing success here. But this roadmap was not primarily designed to address some of our most pressing short-term challenges. And, beyond that, the conceptual roadmap is just a plan on our desks unless we take concrete actions and make a real commitment of resources to implement it.

So… I would like to offer for community discussion a set of proposals that I hope will be considered and then acted upon by the City of Santa Cruz and the Santa Cruz City Council in the coming days and months:

1) Commit additional funds in the amount of $31,000 to ensure that the Winter Shelter Program can operate again this year and provide shelter for up to 100 adults throughout what we expect will be a very wet rainy season. I also suggest we indicate a willingness to contribute a modest amount more if there is a weather-based need and a countywide willingness to extend the Winter Shelter program for extra weeks. (The final decision on this second part would occur in February or March.)

2) In conjunction with a mid-year budget update and budget adjustment in January, consider an additional allocation of funds to sustain the Paul Lee Loft Shelter through the current fiscal year, allowing that program additional time to seek a state Emergency Solutions Grant in 2016 without closing the loft program. (Allowing that program to close prior to the completion of the 2016 ESG funding cycle would virtually ensure that the program would lose eligibility for ESG funds next year.)

3) The County of Santa Cruz has taken steps to create an emergency “warming center” program that will provide the most basic of protections from the rain and cold on nights that are either wet or have near-freezing temperatures. A volunteer organization is working in the Santa Cruz area to implement a similar Warming Center program for this winter season. While I think it is unrealistic for the City to take on providing all of the facilities that might be needed for a “warming center” program, I think we can be one of the partners in this.

 Bag.jpg Freedom Sleepers stage a protest with sleeping bags outside Santa Cruz City Hall. Alex Darocy photo

Freedom Sleepers stage a protest with sleeping bags outside Santa Cruz City Hall. Alex Darocy photo

 

I propose that the City Council direct our City staff to identify a suitable facility (or facilities) to be used for up to 10 nights of warming center use this winter season at no charge— contingent on the warming center volunteer project identifying other locations/facilities that will commit to sharing in this effort by providing 30 nights of warming center use. (It’s my understanding that the volunteer effort has already identified 20 nights of facility use from private organizations.) Of course, city staff would set reasonable standards for the use of city facilities and the city’s offer of use of these facilities would be withdrawn if those standards are not met.

4) Amend the current camping ordinance to remove references to “sleep” and “sleeping” and “covering up with blankets.” I realize that some will argue that this will encourage even more camping in our city…and therefore result in even greater improper waste disposal and environmental damage. This does not have to be the case. Any person that sleeps outside and is also making a mess is committing other violations of city ordinances and this suggested amendment would do nothing to discourage enforcement of those ordinances. In fact, if the city council made it clear that waste problems and environmental damage are a priority for enforcement rather than sleeping, we could actually send the message that we are going to focus on the real impacts of camping rather than on the natural survival activity of sleeping.

5) I propose that the City Council indicate that the City will seek a partner organization with experience working on homelessness to set up a pilot permit program for local residents living in vehicles (limited to 25 vehicles). City cooperation on this pilot program will be conditioned on a rule that the vehicle of each participant be registered at an address with a Santa Cruz zip code (95060-65). It would also be required that permissible parking locations be away from residences and be dispersed throughout the community and that the partner organization provide outreach services to the program participants. I believe this pilot would best be implemented in conjunction with the RV permitting program under development by city staff under previous city council direction.

6) I recommend that the City of Santa Cruz take a neutral and open stance on the question of creating a small, pilot camping area for people unable to access any other form of shelter. Personally, I think this kind of “outdoor shelter” is fraught with likely problems of significant magnitude. Santa Cruz’s earlier attempt at this kind of camping space turned out to provide a place for individuals to prey on the most vulnerable people in need of safe shelter. This does not mean that a genuinely safe and well-managed camping space would not have value — it means that a community organization with proven capacity to manage this kind of project would have to put a complete project plan together (including a legal and workable physical location). I think the City should indicate a willingness to permit such a program but not be partner in operating it.

7) Direct our City Manager to include a proposal for City participation in the funding of the County’s Homelessness Coordinator position in the 2016-17 City Budget. (There would not be a formal decision to provide funding in the near future — just a decision to consider this participation in the context of other budget decisions next June.)

8) Engage in a process to determine what would be the city’s “fair share” of homeless services in relation to our county and our region. I believe we need to stop making our decisions on these issues based on the unwillingness of some other communities to take on any significant responsibility on this issue. If every community used that standard, we could pretend that it would be justified to do nothing. In light of the fact that hundreds of individuals living on our streets are “locals” by any standard, I believe we need to decide what we are willing to do for those individuals and build our funding commitments around this. It would also create a starting point for inviting our neighboring jurisdictions to do the same.

9) Participate with other agencies (public and nonprofit) to evaluate and consider the best use of the facilities located at 115 Coral Street. Changes to HSC’s funding are having an impact not only on their programs but on the programs run by the County Health Department and the River Street Shelter operated by Encompass Community Services. We cannot afford to let any of those facilities to be underused when the need to address homelessness remains so high. The City and the community would be well-served to work with its partners on rethinking the use of those facilities.

Of course, others in the community have different proposals and suggestions and I will consider those approaches as others consider mine.

When we address an issue as complex, controversial and persistent as homelessness it’s not unusual for there to be some avoidance of one or more elements of the issue — elements that probably fit well under the tag “the elephant in the room.”

In Santa Cruz, I believe the biggest “elephant” is the behavior of a handful of high profile homelessness activists. (Note: these are homelessness activists— the most notable among them are not themselves homeless.) Years of boisterous and offensive behavior have caused me to avoid dealing with some aspects of local homelessness issues. I imagine this is also the experience of some other local elected officials. Anyway, I am not proud of my choice to avoid some of these issues. I have allowed what I see as the poisonous behavior of a very small number of people to keep me from taking on some truly important issues.

With this letter, I am trying to move in a new direction: no longer allowing this behavior by others to interfere with my efforts to address difficult aspects of homelessness as a community issue. I hope others in the community will join me in this new approach.

I also want to be clear here that I don’t consider my assertion that some of the activists have behaved badly as a rejection of all of the substantive concerns those individuals have raised about local homelessness policy. Just because some of them behave poorly, does not mean all of their ideas or assertions are incorrect.

I also want to suggest that there may well be a second elephant: the persistent avoidance by local government of the most difficult QUESTIONS related to homelessness. Here are some of the questions that really must no longer be avoided, especially in light of the Grand Jury’s recent report on homeless services and the emergency shelter crisis:

Where is a person who attended Santa Cruz High 15 years ago and who is now broke and troubled and living on the streets supposed to sleep tonight?

Where will we suggest that each of the several hundred unsheltered individuals in the Santa Cruz area spend the night when it starts raining hard?

What public purpose is served when an unsheltered, impoverished person gets a citation for sleeping outside? Is that kind of citation having any positive impact on the homelessness problem we have?

What is our city’s “fair share” of services? How many emergency shelter beds are appropriate for us to have in a city of our size with our level of homelessness?

And, finally, a couple of specific questions for any official who includes in their response to these kinds of questions: “It is up to some other level of government or some other entity to deal with homelessness.” What do we imagine homeless individuals should do while we wait for those other levels of government to step up? If those other entities are not doing their fair share, who should pay the price for that failure? Should it be those entities and their leaders or should it be the individuals who are struggling to survive without a home or a place of shelter?

Lest any reader believe that I am pointing the finger at someone else to deflect from my own responsibility, I will simply say that I am as responsible as anyone in this community for our failure to address our lack of shelter and our over-reliance on law enforcement and the criminal justice system to manage homelessness. I have been a direct participant in many of my City’s decisions on homelessness. I have failed to adequately answer many of the questions I am posing. I’ve come to realize that I am not fulfilling my commitment to compassion and compassionate action if I don’t address these issues more thoroughly and engage others to join in that work with me.

I encourage others to join me in making a new commitment to address these issues more directly and effectively. I’m looking for new partners in this work. I’m also ready to engage in frank conversations on these issues with people of good will — even if we have disagreements on any particular policy or funding approach. We have so much work left to do.

Don

[P.S. This is the fourteenth draft of this letter. I apologize for its length. I continue to wish I could communicate on this set of issues more clearly and make every point more completely. However, at some point, I have to say it’s “good enough” to launch what I hope will be fresh discussion and break out of some of the places we’ve been stuck.]

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