SANTA CRUZ - The City Council on Tuesday unanimously voted to give homeless people a break if they are on a shelter wait list when they receive a citation for overnight camping.

Current rules allow the city to waive such tickets when the winter shelter at the former National Guard Armory site is full. It doesn't cover times when other year-round shelters are full, but the long-standing practice of the city attorney has been to dismiss citations written when such shelters are full.

Robert Norse, a longtime advocate for the homeless who has sued the city over First Amendment protections, called the change "a minor step forward."

But he and others argued that it does little to reverse a camping ban that criminalizes homelessness and sleeping outside. Critics said the rules also create a burden for homeless to visit the shelter every day to check on the wait list.

"It does no good to say you are on a waiting list because you still have to sleep outside," Norse said.

Norse suggested the council add a requirement that those on a wait list receive a receipt that could be shown to an officer, who would then be prohibited from writing a ticket.

Monica Martinez, director of the Homeless Services Center, said she supported the change because it makes the camping ban "more compassionate."

She said her center could issue some sort of verification that people are on a wait list but cautioned that a person, rather than taking advantage of a bed when it becomes available, keep the receipt indefinitely. She said it would be too onerous for staff to give the same homeless person a wait-list receipt every day.

The council's decision left details about wait list verification for the city attorney to work out with shelter providers.

Earlier this week, City Manager Martin Bernal acknowledged a key aim of the ordinance change is to determine, "Are people actually making an effort" to find shelter. He said the change is not in direct response to PeaceCamp 2010, a protest organized by Norse.

The demonstration against the camping ban began July 4 at the county courthouse lawn but was moved outside City Hall once it was clear that city police had no intention of citing participants on county property.

Since then, police have issued 107 citations, the majority of which are for the ban against camping from 11 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. Officers have also made 21 arrests for ignoring demands to leave the property an array of other charges.