Photo by Lluvia Moreno

Content warning: This article contains reference to sexual assault and violence. 

Many Ross Camp residents questioned the  future of their living situation the afternoon of April 23 as they prepared to vacate the encampment under orders from the city. 

Some asked another question — did the closure of the encampment violate the  constitution? 

A group of Ross Camp residents raised this query by filing a civil rights lawsuit against the city on April 9. On Tuesday afternoon, just before the eviction began, District Judge Edward Davila issued a temporary restraining order barring the city from vacating the camp until the court could make its decision. The case is scheduled to be heard on April 26 at 9  a.m. at the Federal District Court in San Jose.

“[Houseless people] are afraid to stand up,” said lead plaintiff Alicia Kuhl, a liaison between Ross Camp residents and the city who lives in her RV. “These things are done to them without any fight back usually. I felt empowered helping people who don’t normally have a voice in these matters.”

Alternative Shelter

The group filed Quintero v. Santa Cruz as a complaint on April 9 and claims closing the Ross Camp without alternative shelter in place would violate the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The lawsuit is based on Martin v. City of Boise, in which the Ninth Circuit held that governments could not criminalize sleeping on public property if there are no options for alternative shelter.

Plaintiffs allege there will not be shelter available to accommodate the over 200 inhabitants of the camp. The city proposed relocating some residents to a camp at 1220 River St., addiction treatment centers or winter shelters. However, the plaintiffs are doubtful, citing the approaching closure dates of winter shelters, lack of funding for addiction treatment centers like Janus of Santa Cruz and the limited capacity of the proposed alternative camp at 1220 River St. They speculate many will be forced back into the streets and the woods.

“1220 River [Street] would be a band-aid toward a solution for the Ross Camp,” Kuhl said. “There are 50-60 people in the surrounding area who could just as easily take over those spaces, leaving no impact on the Ross Camp [population] at all.” 

Although there were 1,800 unsheltered houseless residents in Santa Cruz County in 2017, the proposed River Street camp has room for less than 100 people. Public officials are also reopening the San Lorenzo Park Benchlands as a temporary option for houseless individuals.  

The temporary lot in the Benchlands is equipped with bathrooms and water stations. Photo by Lluvia Moreno

The city has until April 29 to file either a response to the complaint or a motion to dismiss. If the city files a response, both parties can begin gathering evidence as they prepare for trial. The city is considering filing a motion to dismiss the case based on lack of sufficient facts or viable legal theory, said city attorney Anthony Condotti. 

The city’s defense is based on a different interpretation of “alternative shelter.” This definition holds that governments are allowed to prohibit sleeping in public places, so long as they leave some other public spaces available for camping. The city interprets these accessible, outdoor spaces as “alternative shelter.”  

“Some people are reading the decision as a legal mandate to provide shelter for all of the [houseless] individuals in the community, and it’s not,” Condotti said. “We just can’t enforce regulations that would make it impossible or unlikely for a person to find an alternative location to sleep.”

Anthony Prince, legal adviser to the plaintiffs, subscribes to “the broadest possible interpretation” of Martin v. City of Boise and said the city was required to provide indoor shelter if enforcing ordinances.

Management Plan

Regardless of interpretation, because the city is not enforcing its camping ordinances, Condotti said the closure of the Ross Camp isn’t criminalizing houselessness. He said the temporary closure planned for April 23 was part of a management plan and ordered strictly as a public safety measure. 

The camp consists of tightly packed tents, tarps and wooden structures arranged in no particular order. Fire Chief Jason Hajduk said he was concerned by the flammability and  lack of space and exit routes in the camp. Since opening in late 2018, three fires burned within the perimeters of the camp. Two residents suffered severe burns that required medical treatment at the hospital. Hajduk fears this danger will worsen with the end of the rainy season.

“[Ross Camp residents] deserve the same amount of attention to their safety as anyone in the community has, regardless of their socio-economic status,” Hajduk said. “This is less about doing something to them as doing something for them.”

On Monday evening, police officers posted flyers notifying residents of the Ross encampment that they have until April 24 to vacate the area. This occurred prior to a federal district court order on Tuesday. Photo by Lluvia Moreno

Anthony Prince distrusted the city’s motives for shutting down the camp, claiming the safety concerns were purposely overblown to clear the camp out.

“The management plan is a fraud,” Prince said. “The management plan is a plan to regulate [houseless] people, to make the city appear to be helping the [houseless] people but is […] an attempt to circumvent the court once again.”

Prince plans to challenge the management plan in court by demonstrating that the city is not helping the Ross Camp residents.

Strength in Numbers

In the complaint, houseless residents of the Ross Camp contend they are safer in the encampment than they would be on the street. Plaintiffs said living in Ross Camp is an unavoidable act of houselessness and going back on the street is not a viable option. According to plaintiff and Ross Camp resident Desieire Quintero, camp members protect each other from assault. 

“Women get raped and they don’t even want to [report] because who’s going to help them? I’m worried about my safety [camping alone],” Quintero said. “At the Ross Camp, the women are safe.”

The plaintiffs also said allowing the camp to stay open is the safest option for the general Santa Cruz community. Quintero cited a decrease in violent crime since the Ross Camp started up.

“All the [houseless] people that don’t have anywhere to go at night wander the streets,” Quintero said. “[With the camp] they have somewhere to go home.”

The camp also serves as a central location for organizations to provide aid to the houseless. Residents fear the loss of the camp would put them in danger of dehydration and starvation.  

Law enforcement stands by as residents of the camp line up to secure a spot in the Benchlands location at San Lorenzo Park. Photo by Lluvia Moreno

Although not discussed in the lawsuit, Quintero said another important aspect of the encampment is the sense of community — a feeling that has only grown stronger since the filing of the lawsuit. 

Quintero acknowledges the safety concerns surrounding the encampment and believes they can be addressed without displacement.

“[The city] is asking all of us to get up and move. We’re not going to do it. We’re not going to let them just come in and knock our homes down,” Quintero said. “We’ll work with them and clean it up.”

‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’

As the first pro se lawsuit, one where the plaintiffs represent themselves, filed by houseless residents in Santa Cruz, Quintero v. Santa Cruz is historic. However, the lack of representation also means the group is less familiar with the complicated legal process.

Regardless of the lawsuit’s success and the constitutionality of the city’s interpretation, Quintero hopes her actions will highlight what she said is a pattern of disrespect toward the houseless.

“Before, they were going to close it on [April] 17. A lot of people were wondering where the hell they were supposed to go now,” Quintero said. “And this is what they said, ‘you can’t go downtown, you can’t sleep at the beach. Anywhere else, out of sight, out of mind.’”