At about 5 a.m. on an October morning, two houseless people were tucked away beneath the arch of a Pacific Avenue doorway. Red and blue lights brought an end to their rest as a police vehicle came to a stop before them. The emerging officer told the two to move along. 

Encounters like this are common for the houseless population of Santa Cruz and can result in criminal citations. These citations are usually for offenses like obstructing public walkways or being in an enclosed public space. Because most are unable to pay the fine, houseless people often have to work off their ticket through community service.

“The worst has been people who were awake being given citations,” said Keith McHenry, co-founder of Food Not Bombs, a group that serves free food to those in need. McHenry specifically recalled one houseless individual given a citation for sitting on a curb across the street from the Elm Street Mission. That individual worked off their ticket by volunteering with Food Not  Bombs.

A changing legal landscape calls the legality of such citations into question. In the case Martin v. City of Boise, six houseless residents of Boise, Idaho sued the city over criminal citations given to them under its camping and disorderly conduct ordinances. 

On Sept. 4, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the houseless plaintiffs. The court held citing the houseless for unavoidable resting activities in public places violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. 

The Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) has not enforced the city’s camping ban ordinance for the past year. The houseless population is still cited for being in enclosed public spaces and obstructing sidewalks. With a meager supply of shelter space, houseless residents are under pressure.

Constitutionally Questionable Citations

Houseless people in Santa Cruz interact with park rangers more than police officers. The rangers possess many of the same powers as police — with a fraction of the training. 

Santa Cruz Chief of Police Andrew Mills said rangers receive one week of job training, while police officers receive six months. Still, rangers can issue citations and use force, including Tasers. Starting about six months ago, all but three park rangers were absorbed into the police department. Mills credited this change to the rangers’ duties aligning more with the police department’s than the park  department’s. 

Houseless residents say encounters with law enforcement are business as usual for them, and don’t blame individual citing officers or rangers so much as the entities they work for.

“If you’re outside of society, society is not going to grant you three wishes, […] in fact, it’s going to make you pay for not being part of society,” said houseless Santa Cruz resident Josh, giving only a first name. “[…] It’s not that they’re inhumane, it’s that society is punishing us for not being a part of it.”

While citations for obstructing sidewalks and being in enclosed areas aren’t unusual for the houseless, recent federal court cases call the constitutionality of these citations into question. 

“There’s definitely something wrong there, potentially an Eighth Amendment violation under Martin v. City of Boise,” said Tristia Bauman, senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, “also, potentially other constitutional rights violations that reflect a policy or set of policies in Santa Cruz that seem designed to remove homeless people from public view.”

Officers and rangers continue to cite houseless residents for other offenses related to their involuntary resting activities in public spaces. Both claim these citations are allowed because they believe Martin only applies definitively to camping bans. 

“The jury is out on what this means for public space such as sidewalks, streets, highways, parks, et cetera,” Chief Andrew Mills said. “That’s why we have the attorneys looking at it, seeking counsel from other people who were involved in the case. There’s another case out of Los Angeles called Jones v. City of Los Angeles, and I’m very concerned about that one as  well.” 

Jones is a 2006 case in which the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals dealt with the same legal questions involved in Martin, and reached the same conclusions. Though Jones was vacated, the reasoning behind the case still stood as legally valid, and the court cited Jones in the Martin  opinion. 

Specifically, Jones dealt with ordinances prohibiting the houseless from obstructing sidewalks. Legal advocates for houseless individuals feel SCPD’s distinction between camping bans and other citations commonly issued to the houseless is too narrow, and therefore Martin applies. 

“It is simply untrue that Martin only applies to camping bans,” Bauman said. “It applies to any criminal punishment levied against a person for universal, unavoidable activities in public space when they are involuntarily in that public space.”

Decreasing Shelter Space

Insufficient shelter space in Santa Cruz poses an obstacle to houseless people trying to find an alternative to sleeping or sitting in public.

“We’re in the process of prioritizing funding from the state that’s to the order of about $11 million that should be coming in at the turn of the calendar year and into the spring,” said Santa Cruz County Principal Management Analyst Susie O’Hara. “That funding will really help with nonprofits that have existing shelter beds and will hopefully help site new  programs.”

O’Hara is responsible for analyzing administration and finances for the county. She recognized community pushback due to safety concerns as a major obstacle slowing progress on shelter growth.

The temporary River Street shelter received some of this community resistance, but created little conflict with surrounding neighborhoods for its nine month duration. It also helped 73 of the 130 houseless people who stayed there to move into improved living conditions, O’Hara said. Despite this success, the city of Santa Cruz shut it down on Nov. 30 due to financial  circumstances. 

“The River Street camp being shut down right before the rainy season means that there’s going to be 60 to 70 people who now will have to stand outside in the rain,” said Keith McHenry, co-founder of Food Not Bombs. 

According to the 2017 county houseless census, 1,204 houseless people reside in the city of Santa Cruz. Now, only eight shelters remain to accommodate them. None of these are permanent residencies, meaning occupants only stay temporarily before transitioning to improved living conditions or going back to the  streets. 

Brent Adams, founder and director of the Warming Center said other locations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars shelter may be at risk of closure due to increasing costs.

As Santa Cruz currently stands, the existing shelters can accommodate 392 people, leaving about 800 to continue sleeping in public spaces. The city of Santa Cruz’s decision to fence off public spaces, like San Lorenzo Park, from houseless occupation further complicates the lives of houseless residents by reducing the available places they can be. While the city claims San Lorenzo Park is fenced off for maintenance purposes, not all community members are convinced.

San Lorenzo Park is officially closed off from houseless occupation. Photo by Lluvia Moreno.

“It’s very clear that the fence around San Lorenzo Park was put up in conjunction with the closing of the [River Street] camp […],” McHenry said. “Unless they start to do something before the camp is totally closed, it’s a real sign that the city has total disdain for people living outside.”

Other locations, like the Grant Street and Louden Nelson parks, are now fenced off and unavailable as sleeping locations for houseless people. As shelter space and access to public places is diminished, the Santa Cruz houseless population is depending on support from the  community.

Community Response

Houseless advocates in Santa Cruz have rushed to meet unfilled needs.

In an attempt to compensate for Santa Cruz’s insufficient shelter space, the Warming Center operates as a temporary shelter. The center opens when the forecasted temperature is below 37 degrees Fahrenheit or during extreme rain events.

Warming Center director Brent Adams said the shelter plans on opening for twice as many nights during the winter and increasing its capacity to 120 beds. This would be accomplished in part by using the Salvation Army’s facility for 10 nights out of the month as a backup facility for when the Warming Center needs to take in more than 70 people.

Food Not Bombs co-founder Keith McHenry reached out to Santa Cruz Principal Management Analyst Susie O’Hara to try to acquire some of the equipment and supplies used at the now-closed River Street camp. He also plans to distribute 400 sets of rain gear, 250 rubber boots, 150 tarps and 2,000 pairs of socks.

“I’ve seen more support of homeless people during this wave,” McHenry said. “That fence [around San Lorenzo Park] really touched a nerve, and the announcement of the camp closing. We have a lot of public support for taking over a public garage, or something like that.”

San Lorenzo Park is officially closed off from houseless occupation. Photo by Lluvia Moreno.

Also on the table is an en-masse movement of the unsheltered into Pogonip. McHenry even suggested the possibility of collecting various citations given to houseless people and filing a lawsuit against the city of Santa Cruz. Such a suit would be intended to bring change rather than retribution.

“We’re hoping that the Martin decision takes a community like Santa Cruz and causes lawmakers to recognize that this poor policy choice that they’ve made over time to punish people for homelessness is not an option,” said senior attorney for the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty Tristia Bauman. “It’s now an opportunity for them to look at constructive solutions for homelessness.”

Banner photo by Lluvia Moreno.