NOTE TO READER: HUFF is soliciting blankets, sleeping bags, pillows, tarps, and food donations for our nightly event. Please come by, sign our petition, and lie down with us against the Sleeping Ban (MC 6.36.010 section a). If you would like to add your name to our list of endorsers, please e-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org -- ed.
Above photo: Leigh, who has been at
Peace Camp 2010 every night
speaks to SENTINEL reporter, Kimberly White on July 5, 2010.
Homeless, their advocates sleep at county courthouse to protest Santa Cruz's camping ban
SANTA CRUZ -- A handful of homeless men and homeless rights advocates gathered in front of the Santa Cruz County courthouse Monday night, spreading out blankets and unfurling their sleeping bags in a willful violation of a city ordinance that prohibits camping within city limits.
Leigh, who declined to provide his last name, was preparing to sleep out on the courthouse steps for the second night. He said he has lived in Santa Cruz for 35 years and has been "houseless" for the last four or five years.
"I understand at some legal level why the ban was implemented," he said. "I also understand that it was implemented due to the city's intentional oversight in the creation of housing and jobs for people that actually live here. They're in violation of the state charter that requires them to build housing for people that actually work here, or at least plan for it."
He called the ban a "draconian measure" aimed at making it "harder for people that they do displace to stay here" and then criminalizing the resulting behavior.
"The problem is, for a lot of people here, there's no place to go," he said.
Organizers of the "Peace Camp" say they will continue camping on the courthouse steps every night from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. until the city either scraps what they call a "sleeping ban" or creates a safe shelter with additional capacity.
Santa Cruz Vice Mayor Ryan Coonerty said the city attorney automatically dismisses any citations handed out for illegal camping, provided there is proof that all available beds at the various shelters around the city are full.
"He'll dismiss it," agreed Ed Frey, a local attorney who helped organize the protest, "but he won't stop the police from waking people up, writing them a ticket, making them go to court twice, and go over to the homeless services shelter and get an affidavit to the effect that there were no beds available that night. And then the law, in its majesty, will grant you a not guilty verdict."
According to the 2009 Santa Cruz Homeless Census and Survey, about 2,260 people in the county are homeless.
Coonerty estimated that through a combination of city programs and a partnership with area churches, roughly 400 beds are available each night -- and the latest report that came out last month showed that the shelters averaged about 84 percent capacity total.
"I'm not even sure that any area churches are participating anymore in that program," said Becky Johnson, a member of advocacy group HUFF, or Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom, which is backing the protest. HUFF estimates that shelter space is available for only 8 percent of that population, or about 180.
She said the Interfaith Satellite Shelter Project is now redirecting their staffing and funding into the Paul Lee Loft, a new facility at the Homeless Services shelter.
Frey said about 10 of the about 30 people who arrived at the courthouse lawn Sunday night slept there overnight. Deputies eventually came by "and checked us out," he said, but ultimately left without issuing any citations.
Paul Tashiro, patrol supervisor for the Sheriff's Office, saw several people camped out on the platform in front of the courthouse Sunday night, but said no citations were issued because the protesters were peaceful and not creating any disturbances.
In fact, Tashiro said Monday afternoon -- before that evening's vigil began -- that he didn't even know what they were protesting.
"I don't know how much attention they brought to the homelessness issue in the middle of the night on a holiday weekend," he said when he learned that they are protesting the sleeping ban. He noted that if they are gone by 8 a.m. today, "they won't disrupt any services because the county doesn't even open until after 8 a.m."
Asked what the advocates hope to accomplish, Frey said they want to "put pressure on the city government and courts to do the right thing" and stop depriving the homeless of sleep. Instead of forcing the homeless to jump through so many hoops to get the fines dismissed, police should simply call the shelter themselves to confirm that it is full, he said.
"The solution is to follow the law ... which gives the homeless a right to privacy, a right to be left alone, a right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, a right to due process of the law, and a right to be free from torture," Frey said.
"If they think it's unconstitutional, they should challenge it," Coonerty said. "If they want to change the policy, they should have people run for City Council. ... I don't think camping out is the most effective way" to create the change they want.