Out with OVO! On Santa Cruz’s Ongoing Campaign to Criminalize Poverty

Santa Cruz Cares - 10.29.2021
In August, 2021 the median price for a single family home in Santa Cruz was $1.25 million, the average rent for a one bedroom apartment about $2500. The end of the eviction moratorium last September is estimated to put at least 5,000 residents at risk of eviction. Around 300 of our neighbors are living in their vehicles, and hundreds more are camped out in a flood zone by the San Lorenzo River, soon to be swept by the city with no sufficient alternative. It is in this context that Santa Cruz City Council Members Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson, Sonja Brunner, and Renee Golder have decided to put their energy into creating an Oversized Vehicle Ordinance (OVO)—currently under consideration by the City Council—that will fine, ticket, and tow away the vehicles of people who cannot afford more conventional housing. But, as we show, and drawing on copious research, this is nothing less than a disastrous idea.

Policies that rely on police to address poverty and homelessness have time and again failed, only making matters worse for those suffering economic precarity. This policy will ultimately create more unsheltered homelessness in Santa Cruz. As we’ve documented before, there are decades of research indicating that the criminalization of homelessness is expensive, ineffective, and traumatizing for people experiencing homelessness; the data shows that criminalizing people who live in vehicles is no different.

At the latest council meeting the OVO passed its first reading in a 5-2 vote. Mayor Donna Meyers, Vice-Mayor Sonja Brunner, and council members Renee Golder, Martine Watkins, and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson voted in favor, and during the meeting they mostly continued their tradition of deflection and distraction instead of actually engaging with the overwhelming community calls demanding that they drop the criminalizing aspects of the ordinance. Caller after caller demanded services without the threat of criminalization only to be misunderstood and met with nonsensical responses like Watkins’, “I believe that doing nothing is not compassionate.” When they finally did respond to the community’s concerns about criminalization, the council members alternately spoke as if their offering of services negated the criminalizing elements, and then as if the ordinance couldn’t be considered criminalizing because it is “enforcing existing law”. This ignores the fact that pairing services with “enforcement” is a failed policy strategy, that vehicular living is criminalized in existing law, and that this ordinance intentionally creates further ways to target people living in vehicles. It’s also important to note that while this recent council presentation painted a compassionate facade, suggesting that the ordinance will be focused on services, practically none of that is reflected in the actual ordinance language. This policy will in fact increase the criminalization of people living in oversized vehicles by making enforcement a city and police priority as well as creating new ways for these same entities to target those living in their vehicles.


The Truth About Criminalizing Vehicular Living

Vehicles offer a level of privacy, security, and stability not available in temporary emergency shelters or tents, yet, according to a 2019 report from the National Law Center On Homelessness and Poverty, anti-vehicle residency laws are some of the fastest growing forms of criminalization targeting people who sleep in public space. These policies disproportionately impact people for whom compliance is most difficult: those with extremely limited finances who are more likely to own older, less functional vehicles and have fewer resources to repair them when they become inoperable. Because people often have no other stable location to move to, they are confronted with increased ticketing and towing, vehicles being impounded, and ultimately unsheltered homelessness and/or incarceration. As the cost of living keeps rising while eviction protections evaporate, living in mobile homes will continue to be one of the few ways for people to achieve affordable housing in Santa Cruz. Along with other vehicles, large van and RV living serves as a  last safeguard against unsheltered homelessness after a loss of conventional housing. Removing this final safety net will be catastrophic for many of our community members who live in their vehicles.

According to Towed into Debt, a study by the Western Center on Law and Poverty, local governments throughout California regularly tow vehicles for minor offenses, none of which pose a threat to public safety. Considered “poverty tows,” these offences include having outstanding parking tickets, lapsed vehicle registration, and remaining parked in one place for more than 72 hours (all components of the proposed OVO). They target people living in poverty who are most likely to lose, rather than recover, their vehicles as a result of towing, thus imposing the worst impact on vehicle owners. This same report found that, “taxpayers are also harmed when vehicle shelters are towed. An analysis of thousands of vehicle tows and lien sales in multiple California cities suggests that this practice costs more than cities recoup in tickets or revenue flowing from sales of impounded vehicles.” Demonstrating the discriminatory and devastating way these policies function, the report provides the following statistic: “In San Francisco, 50% of vehicles towed for unpaid parking tickets and 57% of vehicles towed for lapsed registration were sold by the tow company, while only 9% of all vehicles towed were sold.”

The cost of retrieving a towed car, or even paying tickets is out of reach for many, yet OVO will de facto target people who lack financial resources, likely leading to loss of employment, access to medical care and education, and loss of shelter.       

The Oversized Vehicle Ordinance

As it is now written, the Oversized Vehicle Ordinance will require all owners of vehicles over 20 feet long, eight feet high, or seven feet wide, to obtain a permit to park on the street between midnight and 5am. They must park within 400 feet of the house the vehicle is registered to, and remain in place for up to three days in a row, no more than four times a month. A permit can be denied if the applicant is not considered a resident or if they have four or more vehicle citations within the past calendar year. Though the definition of “resident” has been slightly expanded since the original 2015 version that was appealed by the Coastal Commission for being “onerous,” “drastic” and “draconian,” it is still incredibly restrictive and likely unconstitutional. Oversized vehicles will be cited for attempting to connect to utilities and for occupying space that is considered to be “untidy/unsanitary.” All who are unable to meet OVO’s requirements will be subject to ticketing, towing, and misdemeanors. There are currently 15 safe parking sites in the city, 21 outside of city limits, all operated by AFC, the Association of Faith Communities. A recently updated summary sheet for the ordinance vaguely describes plans for a “tiered'' safe parking program to be implemented by the city, potentially adding space for 30 oversized vehicles (with no hint at where funding will come from). While the summary sheet makes these services sound like a condition of the ordinance, the actual language of the ordinance is less convincing: “the City may operate, sponsor, or authorize safe parking programs for vehicles on any City owned or leased properties in the City, or any City-sanctioned private parking lots.”

At the first city council reading of the OVO, Father Joseph, the program manager for AFC’s safe parking program, called in to comment. He explained that in response to an earlier AFC request for city assistance in expanding their safe parking program, they were flatly told “there is not one cent” for funding such a program. He went on to question where the funding will come from for these new city-run safe parking spaces. It is common for ordinances like OVO to be accompanied by promises of expanded services in attempt to justify criminalization; however, research has shown that support services tend not to materialize or are ultimately insufficient. Instead, cities see increases in fines, citations, and arrests, with enforcement costs drawing on one area of city expenditures that never seem to have any problem getting funded: policing. SCPD Chief Andy Mills has stated in previous council meetings that SCPD will use “as much overtime as necessary” to enforce the Camping Services and Standards Ordinance, the city’s previous effort at criminalizing homelessness. Since OVO offers no plan for budgeting, we must assume that we will see an increase in police overtime to pay for the enforcement of this ordinance as well (SCPD collectively made over $1.4 million in overtime in 2020, underwritten, ultimately, by the city’s taxpayers).

During his presentation on the OVO proposal, Mills repeatedly emphasized how resource intensive it is to tow oversized vehicles. It can take up to two hours per vehicle and an “incredible amount of effort” while also being disruptive to the public works department. The city has had to create their own tow yard, since others in town are already above capacity. Mills estimates the cost of towing to be around $1200 per vehicle, not including the costs of metal scrapping, cleaning up left-over debris and black water, and “all the other things that go with it.” He does not elaborate on what those other costs are, but we can surmise that they include jail and policing costs, and the increased and ultimately incalculable physical and mental health care costs owing to the adverse medical impacts that loss of shelter brings to those whose vehicles are towed. It’s a convincing case for why this ordinance is ill-advised: it is expensive, resource intensive, and does not meaningfully repair any of the “nuisance” behaviors it claims to address. Ticketing, towing, and issuing misdemeanors to people living in poverty only exacerbates matters, creating additional barriers that push them further away from being able to come into compliance with the ordinance, while making it significantly harder for them to access desperately needed services and resources. Even if we do see the implementation of 30 desperately needed safe parking spaces, this still leaves the majority of those in need without access to basic services.


The Social Determinants of Health: Services and Punishment

Having access to basic services and resources is part of what public health officials call the “social determinants of health.” Acknowledging these social determinants of health as a major driver of equitable cities is a key aspect of Health In All Policies, a guide for cities created by the American Public Health Association (APHA) which was supposedly referenced by Kalantari-Johnson, Golder, and Brunner in creating this policy (Santa Cruz has its very own version of Health in All Policies). This policy guide, which featured prominently in many of the council members’ campaigns, reminds us that safety and health are rooted in meeting people's basic needs: “Health in all policies, at its core, is an approach to addressing the social determinants of health that are the key drivers of health outcomes and health inequities.” The guide explicitly calls out economic inequality as “one of the most critical determinants of health” and defines health inequities as “differences in health that are a result of systemic, avoidable, and unjust social and economic policies and practices that create barriers to opportunity.”

The APHA unequivocally opposes policies like OVO that criminalize homelessness because they perpetuate health inequalities: “Criminalization measures in effect across the United States that target activities associated with homelessness are not only ineffective in reducing homelessness and costly to enforce but serve as a barrier to income and housing stability... These criminalization measures do nothing to address the underlying causes of homelessness, as most police interventions are temporary and result in a fine that homeless individuals are often not able to pay, exacerbating their financial instability.”

One of the many glaring problems with Kalantari-Johnson, Golder, and Brunner’s approach to policy-making as it relates to homelessness is that they seem more driven to find compromises and superficial fixes than to actually problem-solve. You can see that they are trying to make a policy that blends together the desires of opposing parties—those who demand services and those who demand punishment.

But this carrot and stick scheme is another tried and failed strategy. Furthermore, the desire to compromise with people who believe criminalization works necessitates a complete disregard for decades of research showing the direct harm that it causes to unhoused people and communities at large. The refusal to even acknowledge this in a recent city council meeting and public forum, despite it being repeatedly referenced in emails and during public comment, instead finds councilmembers spewing empty platitudes that seem crafted to placate rather than actually engage with criticism. We can see this in a comment from Kalantari-Johnson in response to such critique: “I do believe that action is compassion, because we can get stuck into a loop of finding the flaw, sucked into the loop of not good enough.” It is actually essential that we critically analyze policy and preemptively fix flaws in order to keep ourselves from creating new structural barriers to equity. Kalantari-Johnson speaks as if there are minor flaws to the policy, but causing even one person to fall into unsheltered homelessness is not a minor flaw; it's a life-destabilizing and destructive event for anyone impacted.


Laws versus Justice

This disregard for human life, enabled by the demonization and othering of unhoused people, is a great example of how anti-homeless laws are in direct relationship to and descendants of other laws designed to regulate so-called “undesirable” people in public space, like anti-Okie laws and Ugly Laws. Relatedly, at a recent city council meeting the public was informed that OVO is largely influenced by Golder’s “years of research” on the topic as part of Santa Cruz’s Public Safety Citizen Task Force. This task force’s number one recommendation for the city was to implement Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), a theory that has come under increased scrutiny in recent years in part due to its roots in the racist and debunked “broken windows theory” of policing.

According to Amina Yasin, co-chair of the Canadian Institute of Planners Social Equity Committee, CPTED relies on “spatial anti-Blackness (such as those areas or neighbourhoods that have in the past explicitly excluded Black people), anti-poor policies, and an over-reliance on “eye on the streets” doctrine which have historically criminalized Black, Indigenous, and poor people in public space by rendering these groups as ‘out of place.’” There are many other critiques of CPTED for being classist and racist. That CPTED majorly informs the OVO without any mention or acknowledgement of its history unfortunately seems to be typical for unjust policy-making related to homelessness in Santa Cruz.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of this council meeting was a conversation between City Attorney Toni Condotti and Andy Mills, after Council member Sandy Brown asked what about this ordinance will enhance the city’s ability to tackle “nuisance conditions,” since laws against illegal dumping and litter already exist. Condotti responded that these ordinances exist but are largely unenforceable because typically there is no witness and that “even if you write a ticket, even if you write a misdemeanor, the way the court process works these days is, they would be right back on the street within an hour, engaging in the same behaviors as before, so moving these vehicles along seems to be the only way to address these issues.” Mills chimed in, saying OVO “will give us the opportunity to cite with misdemeanors and then have our own city attorney prosecute. The courts are so overwhelmed with other cases, these cases [that] can’t be prosecuted, [and] the city attorney has a better track record of getting these things prosecuted...We’ve written hundreds of tickets, it can help for a while but it comes right back.”


Santa Cruz says “Get Out!”

The Santa Cruz Police reinforce the existing data that clearly shows that criminalization is bad policy: writing hundreds of tickets has not, and will not, improve the situation. Even so, Mills and Condotti desire harsher punishment in the hopes of greater deterrence. Yet this means effectively criminalizing the most vulnerable among us. Misdemeanors in California are punishable by up to 6 months in jail and/or a fine of up to $1000 and again, disproportionately affect poor people, the effects of which are compounded along racial lines. The threat of incarceration to people who do not have the financial resources to comply with an ordinance, or to fight the citation in court, is heinous at any time, but to enact policy that will effectively incarcerate people for being poor, during a global pandemic, with local jail overcrowding, and law enforcement agents being vaccinated at significantly lower rates than the general public, is particularly sinister.

Though it is not written explicitly as a goal of OVO, pro-OVO city councilors alluded to their hopes that the ordinance will encourage people to “move along,” presumably out of Santa Cruz. Moving people along, whether through criminalization directly or “pervasive penality” (“consistent punitive interactions with state officials that rarely result in arrest, but that do material and psychological harm”), is another anti-homeless policy directive that has been studied and shown to be ineffective, yet is still relied on by the city of Santa Cruz. This was affirmed by Planning Director Lee Butler at the same council meeting, during which he stated that the city is also looking into expanding the Homeward Bound program, which simply gives people deemed undesirable from the city’s perspective one-way tickets out of town.

The admission by the city attorney and police chief that the Oversized Vehicle Ordinance was created so that they can subvert the traditional court system in order to prosecute people via the city attorney is abhorrent, but completely in line with the way the Camping Services and Standards Ordinance was intentionally crafted to subvert the Martin V. Boise decision. It is an anti-science, anti-public health, anti-equity ordinance that undermines the intentions of Health in All Policies. It will increase unsheltered homelessness while simultaneously doing nothing to improve (and likely worsening) “nuisance” behaviors, all the while increasing costs to taxpayers. It does not make littering or sewage dumping more illegal, nor offer actual solutions to these problems, it just creates a new way for police to target people purely based on income level and perceived cleanliness.

A More Caring Approach for Santa Cruz

What would a compassionate and equitable response to these issues look like? A good start would be to consult with people living in oversized vehicles, as they are experts in their own needs. Increasing sanitation services with the expansion of public restrooms, free and conveniently located black water disposal, and more refuse receptacles with frequent pick up options for people living in vehicles would be a step toward bridging the current inequitable service gaps that are the root cause of many complaints. Policies that prioritize services without the threat of criminalization show the most promise of improving people’s living conditions, and, contrary to popular belief, these policies don’t attract more people to the area offering them. How will we pay for it? We can start by chipping away at SCPD’s bloated budget and reallocating funds, while also looking for other funding sources like an empty home tax, or San Francisco’s Prop C.

In the meantime, we need to be louder in our calls for care than the 400 people who sent emails in favor of the ordinance, more visible than the “hundreds” of community members who regularly email Andy Mills and support criminalization, and more persistent than the 1,000 people who signed a petition urging city staff to bring this ordinance forth. We have to push back against the tendency of some in our community to wish poverty away through police intervention, as we know—and as substantial research shows—it is a false solution. Working together, we can continue our calls to defund the police and refund our communities. We can change the conversation with our housed neighbors and build community with our unhoused neighbors, in part by supporting advocacy and mutual aid groups like Homeless United For Friendship and Freedom, Sanitation for the People, SC People's Kitchen, Comrade Cafe, and DSA’s Loveboat.

As living in Santa Cruz becomes financially unattainable for more and more members of our community, it is imperative that we continue to grow and nurture systems of caring for one another. This means not only implementing our own forms of care that don’t rely on the city or county, but also being more active in demanding that the city and county use our money, in the form of public funds, to support people rather than punish and banish them.

Founded in 2021 and based in Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz Cares is a collection of neighbors, activists, working people, and parents who seek to create effective and compassionate methods of solving the problems our community faces. We set out to heal our local information ecosystem by having authentic conversations with our neighbors. We also seek to create local support systems and advocate for rhetoric, behavior and policies that uphold the human dignity of all residents. New members are welcome! If you’d like to join, please sign up here. Follow us on Instagram: @santacruzcares, Facebook: Santa Cruz Cares, Twitter: @WestsideCares1 

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