Peace Camp demonstration enters third week on courthouse steps as county officials weigh their options
SANTA CRUZ -- Four people sit together playing bongos and a tambourine while a puppy lounges nearby.
A man wearing a bolo hat rollerblades in tight circles as tie-dyed fabric hanging from a tree flutters in the breeze.
No, it's not a summer music festival. This was the scene in front of the Santa Cruz County Superior Courthouse just before noon Tuesday, where demonstrators have been sleeping nightly since the Fourth of July to protest the city's camping ordinance in what they call Peace Camp 2010.
"This is a humanitarian issue," said Christopher Doyon, a 45-year-old homeless man who has been participating in the protest for about two weeks. "Folks have a right to sleep."
Demonstrators are protesting the city's camping law, which prohibits sleeping outside between 11 p.m. and 8:30 a.m. But the protest is squarely on county property and county code does not list the courthouse property among locations designated as no-camping zones like Paradise Park and Carbonera Creek.
Although the city's "sleeping ban," as opponents have dubbed it, has been a point of contention for years, frustrations hit a high mark earlier this summer when police said a man set fire to the city attorney's office because of the law. The city also is pursuing a permanent injunction against a homeless couple repeatedly ticketed for camping downtown.
But more than two weeks into the demonstration, city police have taken no action and don't intend to, unless the protest moves off county property, Santa Cruz Deputy Police Chief Rick Martinez said.
So the so-called Peace Camp, which includes 30-50 campers a night, presents a conundrum for city and county officials.
Some would like to see demonstrators move on. For example, court spokesman Tim Newman said the protest hasn't caused problems for the county court branch, but he was concerned campers may have impeded people's ability to access the local justice system.
However, in the 17 days since the protest began, the campers haven't caused significant problems. Trash cans fill up faster and sometimes the aroma of marijuana floats through the air, but the camp has its own portable toilet to mitigate issues with human waste, officials said.
"It looks like a slumber party," said county spokeswoman Dinah Phillips, who can see the protest from the window of her office in the county building. "They line their sleeping bags up."
"We are keeping an eye on it, and we're evaluating our possible responses," Phillips said. "At this point, I don't know what actions we might take, but we're looking at them, evaluating them."
Demonstrators said Tuesday they have no intention of leaving. What had been billed as an 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. sleep-in has grown to a daylong hangout in what protesters have deemed the Peace Garden, a tranquil sitting area in front of the courthouse and surrounding lawn. And the demonstrators have a Twitter account to alert supporters of any attempts to end the protest.
Beyond drawing attention to the plight of homeless people in the city, organizers said the demonstration has given people a safe place to catch a few winks. Doyon said some fellow campers have told him staying on the courthouse lawn allowed them to have their first safe night's sleep in weeks or months.
"We have everybody coming here," said homeless advocate Becky Johnson, who helped organize the protest. She said the campers include the chronically homeless, travelers stopping in for a night, and a younger crowd that parties until 2 or 3 a.m., then comes by to crash.
One elderly, ailing woman joined the campers after sleeping on the San Lorenzo River levee, where she lived in fear of being raped or robbed. The woman, who uses a cane to get around, now sleeps with friendly faces at the courthouse, Johnson said.
Doyon said the group hopes their demonstration will lead local government officials to establish a safe, legal place for the homeless to camp.
"We've got fantastic support," said Doyon, dressed in mismatched camouflage gear and sporting a reddish beard and shaggy hair. "We're going to be relentless."
Phillips said county officials have not opened a dialogue with the group and don't plan to discuss moving the camp to another, more permanent location because the county already funds homeless services.
"Again, we're somewhat puzzled at the fact they have an issue with the city ordinance and we don't know why they're here on county property," Phillips said. "We wish they'd take this issue back to the city where it belongs."
All photos: Dan Coyro, SENTINEL July 21 2010