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Santa Cruz City Council’s Cruel Camping Ban Criminalizes—and perpetuates—Houselessness

Westside Cares - 07.10.2021
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As research and historical evidence shows, anti-homeless ordinances like Santa Cruz’s recently passed Camping Services and Standards Ordinance not only don’t work, they lead to further cycles of violence, more entrenched houselessness, and increases in police budgets and city legal expenses in fighting lawsuits—all in the interests of gentrification and real estate development.

Santa Cruz City Council’s 6/8/21 decision to pass the Camping Services and Standards Ordinance (CSSO) falls in line with a long legacy of council members who have ignored research and expert opinion in favor of passing anti-homeless legislation with the goal of sanitizing Santa Cruz for increased gentrification.

In 1994, as Santa Cruz was still trying to recover physically and economically from the ’89 earthquake, city council passed the “Downtown Ordinances,” which criminalized actions like sitting on sidewalks, leaning against buildings, and panhandling. In her 1995 master’s thesis analyzing the city’s response to homelessness, now American University sociology professor Celine-Marie Pascale describes Santa Cruz in an eerily familiar way: a pervasive cognitive dissonance existing in a city that prides itself on being a bastion of progressivism while passing some of the most restrictive anti-homeless policy in the country. All the while, its community experiences rapid gentrification and displacement due to skyrocketing housing prices and rental costs well beyond the reach of the salaries of local workers.

Some of the arguments then-council members used to support the 1994 ordinance may sound familiar: “if we offer too many services we will attract more homeless people”; “the majority of homeless people here are not long-term city residents”; and “Santa Cruz has more than its fair share of homeless people”. Pascale found that council members divided unhoused people into groups of “deserving” and “undeserving,” believing that their ordinances targeted those who were “undeserving” and “nuisance”-causing. When Pascale wrote that paper almost 30 years ago, she already had access to ample evidence that easily disproved these justifications for criminalization. Since then, we have acquired decades more research confirming that criminalizing homelessness is expensive, ineffective, and traumatizing. Yet, our city government continues to parrot these harmful myths that enable bad policy. The veracity of the data supporting this is so substantial that even entities like the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, the United Nations Human Rights Council, the American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association unequivocally condemn policies that criminalize homelessness.

Anti-Homeless Laws are Expensive

Laws that deprive people’s access to stable shelter, like CSSO, cost a lot of money to enforce. Santa Clara County reports spending as much as $176 million annually on criminal-justice-specific homeless issues. Los Angeles spends $30 million conducting sweeps every year. More money still is spent fighting lawsuits that challenge the constitutionality of ordinances like CSSO. Santa Cruz has faced many over the years and is currently involved in one. The city attorney admitted during the 3/9/21 council meeting that it is not a matter of if, but when the Outdoor Living Ordinance (since renamed CSSO) will face litigation challenges.

It is widely acknowledged by experts that redirecting funds towards productive and preventative solutions is one of the most cost-effective weapons we have against homelessness. As such, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has created incentives for communities to stop criminalizing homelessness, such as its annual Continuum of Care Program Competition, which awards more than $2 billion to states, local governments, and nonprofits that can prove their communities are divesting from criminalization. Studies repeatedly demonstrate that providing shelter for people saves money in the long term. For example, in Seattle researchers found that if the city had invested the $3.7 million they spent enforcing criminalization ordinances over a period of five years, and instead put it into housing, taxpayers could have saved $2 million annually and over $11 million over the same five year period.  An analysis from Florida found that providing chronically unhoused people with housing and case managers would save $21,000 per person in law enforcement and health care spending.

The Santa Cruz Police Department spends a significant amount of time and money dealing with issues related to homelessness. Their annual budget for Fiscal Year 2020-2021 is $25.6 million. If we reallocated budgetary expenses covering even a quarter of time spent responding to houselessness—and an SCPD document shows it is actually closer to 80%—we could see $6.5 million annually put towards housing and services. This would directly help people experiencing homelessness, mitigate some of its visibility, and decrease the workload for SCPD. Instead, we’re moving in the opposite direction: at the 2/23/21 city council meeting introducing the ordinance, Police Chief Andy Mills stated he would be happy to have his officers use “as much overtime needed to enforce this policy.” Notably,      many SCPD officers have received substantial pay in overtime (with one receiving an astounding $76,518 beyond his salary in 2019!).

Anti-homeless Policies are Ineffective

CSSO will make it illegal to camp in most parts of the city, requiring people to disassemble their camps every day unless they can prove a “qualifying” disability, in which case they will have four days to relocate. It will also penalize people for having an “unreasonable” amount of trash. At the same time, the city is not compensating by increasing available places for people to find stable shelter or even safely rest during the day, nor is it providing any increased access to sanitary services that would enable people to manage their trash. When shelters are overburdened and affordable housing unavailable, as is the case in Santa Cruz, enforcement of such laws as CSSO effectively force people to break the law when they shelter in public, risking harassment from the police. Consequently, the unhoused are driven to more isolated and hidden locations. Although public health is often invoked when criminalization policies are marketed to the public, these types of laws are well known to worsen public health by dispersing people and their belongings to remote areas with nowhere to discard trash or bodily waste.

 As seen with other quality of life ordinances, CSSO will not disincentivize people from remaining in Santa Cruz. Field surveys from Denver and San Francisco confirm that camping bans have not inspired people to leave town. Instead, people travel longer distances every night in search of shelter, moving more frequently between neighborhoods. This well-known phenomenon of continually moving people around town without actually reducing the number of unhoused people is called “churn”. In order to avoid moving camp daily, many seek out places harder to discover or that are in unincorporated areas not under city jurisdiction like freeway underpasses.

Though quality of life ordinances are typically accompanied by promises of expanded services, there is no evidence to support that any city has actually done so in a way that adequately meets local needs. Rather, despite their proliferation, cities with anti-homeless policies continue to have substantially more unhoused residents than there are shelter beds or services available. A San Francisco Coalition of Homelessness study found that the launching of new “outreach” services often took the form of a pamphlet, bus ticket, or offer to get on a housing waitlist. Unhoused people found these offerings unhelpful at procuring a safe place to sleep, suggesting they serve only the purpose of justifying criminalization. Much like CSSO, Colorado’s quality of life ordinance was marketed as a way to create services while enforcing with a light touch. However, survey data supplemented by police records suggest that the goal of substantially expanding services was not met, and instead there was an increase in fines, citations, and arrests. 

Anti-homeless Laws are Traumatizing to Unhoused People

 Quality of life ordinances are often marketed as “soft” policing. However, when we analyze their place in the larger process of criminalization, we see that they have dire consequences that are compounded along the lines of race, gender, disability, and sexual identity, perpetuating health inequalities. According to one researcher, when anti-homeless laws are enacted, “homeless individuals have continual interactions with law enforcement that are designed to punish even if they don’t lead to arrest. This creates a never-ending cycle of homelessness, inflicting material and psychological harm while deepening racial, gender, and health inequalities among the urban poor.” Marginalized groups are disproportionately likely to be homeless and experience disproportionate policing after becoming homeless.

Homeless interviewees in multiple studies describe how ordinances like CSSO have kept them from stable shelter, increasing their vulnerability. They form part of a well-researched cycle of criminalization of poverty that, far from containing homelessness, actually perpetuates it. More, it acutely perpetuates harm. In some instances, people have experienced sexual assault as a direct result of being relocated. People of all genders reported increased fights and violent attacks occurring after being forced to relocate, but transgender and gender non-conforming people most frequently reported feeling less safe after being forcibly relocated. After Denver’s camping ban, unhoused interviewees reported feeling less safe, getting less sleep, and found it increasingly difficult to access shelters and other services.

CSSO asks cops to perform “outreach” before advancing to more harsher penalties. Even without facing fines, citations, or arrest, people being forced to relocate felt these experiences were traumatic, stressful and worsened interpersonal conflict. In both San Francisco and Denver researchers saw that camping bans increased competition for safe places to sleep, contributing to theft and trespassing. Amendments to the CSSO offer houseless folks the chance to work off their fines and avoid misdemeanors by performing community service. This increasingly popular strategy in the US is described by unhoused people as time-consuming, exploitative, and demeaning. In order to get cases dismissed, people must make multiple trips to the courthouse, keep track of appointments, and keep paperwork organized. Due to these challenges, most simply chose to ignore citations.

Let’s Organize Against the Camping Services and Standards Ordinance

In Pascale’s 1994 paper, she states that it is well known that plans for development and gentrification often catalyze efforts to remove unhoused people from sight (confirmed by later research). While the desire of business owners and developers to rid the town of visibly poor people was nothing new, it was novel at the time for local “progressive” government to be working with developers to achieve this goal. This, she says, was the key to understanding the city’s response to homelessness. While this type of alliance is no longer unusual, it cannot be underestimated as a key to understanding how our local government responds to homelessness today.

After the passage of the Downtown Ordinance in 1994, people resisted. A 300-person protest against the ordinance resulted in 30 people being arrested for sitting on the sidewalk and cost the city a hefty sum to police, due in part to 70% of the 40 cops who showed up using overtime. Council meetings about the ordinance were so large they had to be moved to the Civic Center. They were attended by the ACLU, who later sued the city over the ordinance and won (the city responded by creating a new ordinance specifically designed to subvert the court's decision, allowing them to continue their crusade to disappear visible homelessness from downtown. Sound familiar?). This opposition letter from the Santa Cruz Chapter of the International Workers of the World accurately describes the camping ban/conduct ordinance as an attack on the poor and working class in the name of the city’s beautification for a certain class of people. The IWW also organized an overnight protest in front of Bookshop Santa Cruz, directly targeting then council member and ordinance author Neal Coonerty (whose daughter Casey Coonerty Protti, now runs the Bookshop).

The recently-passed CSSO ignores decades of research by experts who study homelessness as well as the historical failure of anti-homeless ordinances in our city. When we start to see the direct impacts of this ordinance play out—look for dispersed camping sites, increased police budgets, more accidental fires, unmanaged trash, needle and human waste, but most importantly, more human suffering—the council will ignore their own culpability and instead place the blame on unhoused people and encampments. This will be used predictably as further justification for the city’s commitments to more sanitization and gentrification, more punitive actions and criminalization, feeding public resources to developers, realtors, and police, instead of to the people who really need it. It is imperative that we continue to refocus the blame back where it belongs: on the city’s harmful policies. Faced with a council majority who refuses to listen to history, scientific research, and the majority of their own constituents, we must organize ourselves to create alternatives (including a different city council!). We believe wholeheartedly in our collective power to do so. Let’s use our creativity and critical thinking to advocate for—and enact—constructive and compassionate responses in addressing homelessness.

Founded in 2021 and based in Santa Cruz, Westside 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: @westside_cares, Facebook: Westside Cares, Twitter: @WestsideCares1

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