On Homelessness and Human Rights in Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz has enacted bans on sleeping in parks and in vehicles, bans on blankets, and bans on sitting, camping, sleeping, breathing, resting, dreaming and existing. Have the activists been noisy and “boisterous” in protesting the cruel attacks on poor people in their community? Thank God they have.
Santa Cruz police have been constantly arresting and harassing the Freedom Sleepers outside City Hall. Photo by Alex Darocy

Santa Cruz police have been constantly arresting and harassing the Freedom Sleepers outside City Hall. Photo by Alex Darocy

 

Commentary by Terry Messman

Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane released an open letter last month that took a thoughtful look at the suffering of homeless people in his city, and called for compassionate measures such as emergency warming centers, expanded shelters, legal parking for homeless vehicle dwellers, and an end to the ban on sleeping. [Mayor Lane’s letter was published in the November 2015 issue of Street Spirit.]

Lane’s statement is a significant exploration of the issues surrounding homelessness — especially in light of the two votes on November 17 and December 1 to criminalize homeless people by Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and the majority of the City Council. The refusal of Berkeley officials to listen to the hundreds of people who spoke out with intelligence and compassion in defense of the human rights of the poorest citizens was a travesty. In this climate, the open letter from the mayor of Santa Cruz takes on even greater importance.

Mayor Lane described the enormous suffering of the homeless community, and acknowledged his city’s failure to provide adequate shelter for the people trapped in poverty on the streets. Even more surprisingly, he questioned Santa Cruz’s mistaken policies of criminalizing homeless people and its sleeping ban.

What makes Lane’s statement so meaningful is that it flies in the face of Santa Cruz’s appalling police attacks on its homeless residents. For the past 30 years, Santa Cruz, to its absolute disgrace, has compiled one of the worst track records of anti-homeless legislation in the nation.

Police Repression by ‘Progressives’

The city’s inhumane policy of police repression has been carried out by self-avowed liberal-to-progressive municipal officials who have enacted a seemingly endless series of cruel laws to banish homeless people from public spaces in what can only be called a deliberate campaign of de facto segregation — segregation based on economic class, race and disability.

As a result, many Santa Cruz advocates and homeless people are understandably suspicious of Mayor Lane’s sincerity and good will, given the city government’s unbroken record of persecuting and outlawing nearly every facet of the existence of homeless people.

But there is another way to look at Lane’s statement. One way that social-change movements work is by gradually educating and awakening public officials — sometimes even officials in cities with reactionary policies — to the injustice of oppressive laws.

In Santa Cruz, dedicated activists have carried out a long-lasting and hard-fought struggle to expose human rights abuses and discriminatory laws aimed at homeless people. When the first glimmers of light finally begin to break out, it is important for the activists involved to keep an open mind about the potential for change.

Still, it is not only understandable, but essential, for activists in Santa Cruz to remain wary of the true intentions of any mayor or public official who professes to be reconsidering his city’s long-time persecution of homeless people. It is important for them to remain vigilant when they have witnessed the rights of homeless people constantly violated in their city.

But Lane’s letter is the kind of public support for the rights of homeless people that we must hope will emerge across the nation in hundreds of U.S. cities with similarly repressive anti-homeless ordinances. His public challenge to anti-homeless laws and his call for greater compassion is a challenge to the consciences of municipal officials throughout the state.

U.S. Government Condemns Sleeping Bans

Mayor Lane’s reflections have not arisen in a vacuum. Recently, the U.S. Department of Justice declared in a court case in Boise, Idaho, that laws that criminalize homeless people in cities with inadequate shelter amount to “cruel and unusual punishment.” And the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development warned city officials across the nation that they are at risk of losing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal homelessness funds if they continue to criminalize homelessness.

These developments played a significant role in spurring Lane’s reflections. The mayor admits as much in his letter:

“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.”

It is a positive sign that Lane is calling for greater public compassion and is re-examining and even repudiating some of the mentality that leads to the criminalization of people living on the streets. That is why it is worthwhile to look more closely at the most illuminating points in Mayor Lane’s public letter — and then at the terribly flawed shortcoming of his statement.

The best part of Lane’s letter is simply its candor in taking a hard look at the alarming lack of shelter and services for homeless people in his city. He reports that even though County officials have increased funding for homeless services, the City of Santa Cruz has significantly reduced its funding, jeopardizing winter shelter programs and resulting in the loss of meals, restrooms and showers for hundreds of homeless people.

Activists have tried for years to make the City Council acknowledge the complete failure of Santa Cruz to house or even shelter more than a fraction of its homeless population. It is important that the mayor stated this explicitly, in black and white, to the public.

No Shelter for Hundreds

Lane writes, “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.”

This adds up to a very serious indictment. For Mayor Lane admits that Santa Cruz is committing precisely the same injustice that the Department of Justice condemned in Boise, Idaho, by criminalizing people for sleeping outdoors in a city with too few shelter beds.

Lane states: “It has become extraordinarily difficult for any homeless adult to find any emergency shelter.”

The mayor also asks penetrating questions about the hardships faced by homeless people. Usually, if city officials address homeless issues at all, they discuss them in a way devoid of all human feeling, as if they were talking about bloodless statistics or abstract economic indicators, rather than human beings.

It is rare for any mayor to confront the desperation, anguish and suffering of people who have lost their housing. Lane asks the following questions in an attempt to open the eyes of city officials to the reality that leaving people to languish in misery is not a decent response to the desperate levels of human need on the streets.

“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?”

Lane makes another important point. City officials across the nation have passed the blame for the homeless crisis onto the federal government and its failure to adequately fund affordable housing.

Lane rejects that easy transfer of blame as a cop-out, asking how homeless people are supposed to survive while waiting for some other level of government to deal with homelessness, and asking why homeless people should pay the price for the failure of government officials.

High Rents and Homelessness

Throughout California, excessive and unconscionable rental increases have caused a critical shortage of affordable housing and a massive number of evictions for profit. Extortionate rents are a major cause of homelessness.

In Berkeley, the mayor and the majority of City Councilmembers are in the pocket of the real estate interests and corporate developers that are driving up rents to unprecedented levels. That is not only my analysis. That is also what Berkeley Councilmember Max Anderson said in accusing the council majority of pushing through anti-homeless laws because they are in the pocket of big-money interests.

Mayor Lane describes the direct role played by sky-high rents in causing greater homelessness. He writes, “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.”

Mayor Lane, to his credit, also called on Santa Cruz to stop criminalizing sleep, proposing that city officials “amend the current camping ordinance to remove references to ‘sleep’ and ‘sleeping’ and ‘covering up with blankets.’” That is a step forward, if only it is followed up by the Santa Cruz City Council.

In addition, Lane called on the City to allocate more funding for shelter, and to become a partner with Santa Cruz County in running an emergency warming center to provide life-saving shelter in the winter. He also suggested that the City work with a partner organization to set up a pilot project for homeless residents to legally sleep in their vehicles, and explore the possibility of allowing an agency to create a small pilot camping area for people unable to find any housing.

Santa Cruz police surround activist Robert Norse at the sleep-out near City Hall. City officials have criminalized the essential act of sleeping. Alex Darocy photo

Santa Cruz police surround activist Robert Norse (in blue bathrobe) at the sleep-out near City Hall. City officials have criminalized the essential act of sleeping. Alex Darocy photo

 

Unwarranted Attack on Activists

It is truly unfortunate that, after saying so many of the right things about homelessness, Mayor Lane then launches an unwarranted attack on the very activists who have championed the rights of homeless people in Santa Cruz, in season and out. It is a bitter irony that the mayor maligns the same homeless advocates who have advocated literally every single one of the proposals he makes in his letter.

Lane refers to the unwanted presence of the city’s homeless activists as 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.”

I read that passage with dismay. I have attended many protests in Santa Cruz over the years, and instead of “poisonous behavior,” I have seen nonviolence in action, spirited protests that asked the right questions, and challenged terribly unjust laws.

At times, I have also seen activists hurl angry accusations at public officials — yet these officials were entirely guilty of persecuting the poor and other acts of inhumanity. Some demonstrators have occasionally crossed the line into hostility and name-calling. Perhaps that would not happen in a perfect world, but I cannot think of any movement yet that has maintained perfect discipline at all times.

Mayor Lane has chosen to malign the very activists who have done the most to keep concern for human rights alive for all these years. Have they been noisy and “boisterous” in advocating that poor people not be criminalized? Thank God they have.

Cry Me A River

Have they stung city officials with outspoken protests and, at times, intemperate accusations? Cry me a river. They have only done so in order to stick up for poor people who would otherwise be defenseless and voiceless in Santa Cruz. What is at stake are human lives — and not the delicate feelings of the City Council.

Another irony is at work. Almost all of Lane’s proposals for safe sleeping places, legalized areas for vehicle dwellers, and a moratorium on the sleeping ban, did not originate with him, but with the homeless advocates he recklessly defames.

Santa Cruz homeless advocates, including Steve Pleich, Linda Lemaster, Rabbi Phil Posner, Robert Norse and Alex Darocy, have authored thoughtful policy proposals and written articles in Street Spirit that have described in detail every one of the ideas embraced by the mayor in his letter.

And for many months, the Freedom Sleepers have gone far beyond Mayor Lane’s words calling for an end to the sleeping ban by repeatedly putting their bodies on the line in weekly nonviolent sleep-outs at Santa Cruz City Hall, showing a level of dedication to the cause of human rights that should not be denigrated or bad-mouthed by any mayor or public official.

It is strange that a mayor would advance these identical proposals, saying he is now ready to “engage in frank conversations on these issues” even with people that “have disagreements on any particular policy” — and then publicly disparage the activists.

Santa Cruz activist Steve Pleich said, “It is ironic that the Mayor has chosen to advocate for these programs after months of foot dragging while simultaneously taking a swipe at the very activists who have been advocating for the programs he now seems to be embracing.”

City officials may dislike the activists for disrupting business as usual, but these protests only occured because the City Council has presided over police raids and repression for three decades.

Instead of creating housing and other humane solutions, they have enacted an endless series of sleeping bans and vehicle bans and blanket bans and park bans and bans on sitting-camping-breathing-eating-sleeping-dreaming-and-existing.

Mayor Lane honestly admits, “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.”

One must add that, as mayor of Santa Cruz, Lane is more responsible than anyone else for the city’s failure to provide shelter and for the cruel laws that result in constant police harassment and raids.

Even while admitting his own complicity in these misguided homeless policies, Lane goes out of his way to defame the activists who have been right all along.

Blaming It All On ‘Outside Agitators’

It is reminiscent of the city officials in Alabama and Mississippi in the 1960s who attacked civil rights workers as “outside agitators” bent on disrupting the peace of their segregated cities.

The civil rights workers that this nation now honors were not honored in their time, but were vilified for upsetting the established order. Then, as now, activists who defended an unpopular minority incurred the wrath of public officials and the police.

They were disparaged just as Mayor Lane disparages his own city’s civil rights activists. Santa Cruz officials resent protesters because they use tactics that make them uncomfortable. At times, they have been rude and confrontational.

All of the civil rights activists in our nation’s history have made city officials uncomfortable. No mayor ever wants the established order to be upset. Yet that is what activists must do. They must expose unjust laws and create an uproar so that city officials are forced to listen. They must create a moral crisis to force an unwilling government to deal with the issues.

Given the amount of human suffering on the streets and the police repression ordered by city officials, it is remarkable that there have been virtually no instances of violence in a 30-year history of homeless protests in Santa Cruz.

Creating a Moral Crisis

Instead, there have been dedicated people working to create a moral crisis around homelessness, exactly as Martin Luther King described it in a public letter of his own, “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” King’s words from his jail cell explain why homeless activists in Santa Cruz must go on agitating for change and disturbing the peace of public officials:

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

Later in his letter, King added, “The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

That is what activists in Santa Cruz are attempting to accomplish, and Mayor Lane and the City Council must understand this and bear it in mind.

The mayor also needs to take into account the other side of this conflict: the many times when city officials and the police have muzzled or banished protesters, and the extremely offensive and rude and censorious ways they have conducted themselves in silencing dissenting voices.

Have the activists sometimes expressed their anger about injustice in bitter outbursts? Without question.

But the vast majority of homeless protests in Santa Cruz have been conducted in a nonviolent way, even while the activists have faced police mistreatment, jail terms and the scorn and public defamation of city officials.

Nonviolence and Relentless Perseverance

What is at stake in these protests are the very lives and human rights of people living on the streets of a city that has criminalized their existence, a city that has utterly failed to provide enough shelter, as testified by the mayor himself.

Considering the life-and-death urgency of the issues at stake, if protesters sometimes have vented their frustration at the officials who have refused to listen to repeated appeals for humane treatment of people living on the street, so be it.

Nonviolent resistance has been defined as “relentless perseverance.” Relentless perseverance is the hallmark of the Santa Cruz activists.

Although they are routinely maligned by city officials, they have carried out principled actions in defense of the rights of homeless people with a long-lasting dedication that is an inspiration to anyone who cares about human rights.

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