Something for everyone… not to like
The new proposal for a major revision of the City of Santa Cruz “camping ordinance” is the next shitstorm to roll into our community related to the large number of people sleeping outside each night.
There really is something in the proposal to alarm people in every corner of the political boxing ring known as Santa Cruz. Perhaps this is an indication that it really is a decent effort at trying to balance a lot of needs and concerns. Having said that, it’s worth mentioning that this is one of those moments when my brain is flashing: “I am so glad I’m not on the City Council right now!” I guess I should also add that an effort at balancing a lot of needs of concerns does not necessarily lead to a great outcome.
Let’s start with a quick look at why this (long overdue!) proposal is coming forward. It’s pretty straightforward:
there are hundreds of people sleeping outside
there aren’t designated authorized/legal locations for the majority of these folks to sleep at night
many of the people sleeping outside are set up in very messy, dirty, unhealthy situations (such as Highway 1 near Highway 9)
some people are camping in locations that are particularly dangerous or damaging (such as on the banks of the San Lorenzo River or right next to a highway with fast moving cars)
many housed people (and unhoused, too) hate seeing this disarray and lack of management-- and are pressing the city to deal with the situation
Federal court rulings have created limitations on what a local government is able to do to enforce camping / sleeping regulations while there is a lack of emergency shelter --and there is a significant lack of emergency shelter in our county in relation to our street population. (The Martin v. Boise is the key court case in all of this.)
Thus, the City government is trying to respond to all of these realities and manage the situation more positively than it has been managed up to now.
Now…I’m going to summarize what the new proposal says because it is long and fairly complex. I will oversimplify because I just can’t deal with every detail. I hope this will still be useful.
The ordinance recognizes the Martin v. Boise rules and assumes that some people will have to sleep outside without penalty since there isn’t enough shelter.
The ordinance names the places where people definitively cannot set up to camp—certain environmentally sensitive areas, city parks, certain high-traffic areas like downtown and the city beaches, and a few others.
The ordinance creates some fairly specific rules about the times of day when tents can be set up and how densely packed the tents can be. (There are disability and bad weather exceptions in this section.)
It does have a tool to allow the city to clear an encampment once a certain objective level of problems occurs
It creates a framework (without any specifics) for the city allowing “managed encampments” around the community but does not create any such encampments at this time.
And… saved the trickiest one for last… anticipates that the City will set up storage facilities for bedding and belongings so that people that are required to take down their tents and campsites each day will have a secure location for their belongings. AND… the ordinance says the required daily breakdown of tents each day will NOT be enforced until adequate storage facilities are in place. This is important because it appears to me to mean that a key provision of this new ordinance would not be enforced much in the near future. However, this will also put real pressure on the city to create more storage options.
Wait… actually there’s another really tricky part and it seems quite murky to me right now. It appears that the ordinance will allow (de facto, not explicitly) people in some kinds of locations to break down their tents and consolidate—but remain in their location for a long period of time as long as their tent is put away each day.
I suspect much of this whole proposal will be controversial but I suspect these last two will be the biggest headaches for policymakers and decision-makers in the city.
I don’t have strong opinions on much of this… except that lack of more clarity about permissible places for people to sleep is very unfortunate. I understand the need and the thought going into the proposal.
I do have some wishes:
-That the “de facto” bit I mentioned above is utilized a fair amount - so that people who maintain things and stay organized will be able to remain in the same location for a period of time. Folks on the street will be advantaged by this stability and those doing outreach will have a better way of staying in touch and working consistently with individuals. It will also be an encouragement to keep a spot well-maintained.
-That both community organizations and the City move quickly to set up more managed locations. This is not easy and there is significant cost involved. But it is a much better interim solution than having so many unmanaged locations.
-That the County and City and all the players continue to find even more resources to help individuals living outside get indoors and connected to a system that leads to real housing.
-That we all continue to work on the long-term effort to create more very affordable / very low-income rental housing spaces. Without this, we simply move people around without solving hardly anything.
- (this is a former mayor writing on this last point…) That everyone recognize how difficult these challenges and choices are… and that we cut our government officials a bit of slack as they try to balance so many needs and (angry) voices in the community. This is not to say “let them off the hook” but it is to say that we should not pummel these officials for doing their best to wrestle with an impossible situation.
Tuesday's city council meeting is likely to be a classic!