Andrew Mills - Chief of Police - Santa Cruz

Homeless In Santa Cruz: Ross Camp 2.0

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Many Santa Cruzans have questions about the current encampment behind the Gateway Plaza. The campsite is on public property; part is owned by the City, and part is owned by the State.

Let’s be clear, for the police to be effective, the public must willingly follow the law. Without a culture of lawfulness, society quickly falters.  It seems the culture of lawfulness is quaking in Santa Cruz.  These tremors adversely affect our rule of law and, ultimately, the health of our community.  We must correct this lack of a culture of lawfulness for the long term health of Santa Cruz.

Many community members have asked why the police have not taken immediate enforcement action in Ross Camp.  The City’s anti-camping ordinance was suspended by the City Council, in the spirit of full compliance with the Ninth Circuit’s recent decision in the Martin v. Boise case, which held that the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment precludes the enforcement of statutes prohibiting sleeping outside against homeless individuals with no access to alternative shelter.  I support the Council’s decision to comply with the law of the land.

The police cannot enforce laws that do not exist.  Nor can we make laws up as we go, or enforce laws that do not fit the crime.  We cannot use the power of the government in this fashion.

There are some laws we can pass to control some of the behaviors associated with fostering a culture of lawlessness.  On November 26, Council will take up for consideration an amendment to the current camping ordinance currently being written by the City Attorney, in collaboration with the Police Department.  I fully support an ordinance that will provide the City with better tools to address nuisance conditions often associated with homeless encampments, while conforming to the restrictions imposed by the Martin v. Boise decision.  Sleeping at night is one thing, but leaving tents up during the day and hauling in mounds of personal property, furniture, and miscellaneous equipment and material is an unattractive nuisance, and monopolizes public property in a way that is unfair to the rest of the community.  I believe that a law like this would fit within the Martin v. Boise decision. If passed by City Council, SCPD will rigorously enforce this law.

We can also prohibit camping overnight in many areas of the City, such as the beach, parks, center city, and schools.  The enforcement of an ordinance that broadly prohibits camping on public property would, however, be dependent on having a legitimate place for people who are homeless to go and sleep at night.  I encourage you to voice your opinion to the Council.

Do not be deceived.  Additional ordinances will not solve homelessness.  They may mask some symptoms for a while, but they will not solve the problem.  The drivers of homelessness are lack of affordable housing, lack of effective mental health services, and drug addiction.  Tickets alone cannot solve these problems.  We’ve tried and failed.

Over the past several decades, thousands of tickets have been written for camping.  Yet, according to most people, the problem has worsened.  The State of California and the County of Santa Cruz must also do their share to shoulder their portion of the problem.  They have the funds and the authority to address mental health, drug rehabilitation beds, the jail, and post-conviction supervision.  The City of Santa Cruz cannot solve this problem alone.  We need the State and the County to do their job. We do appreciate all of the efforts Ryan Coonerty has made to help fund programs and find locations for housing. The lack of space in the Winter could push more homeless individuals to the streets of Santa Cruz.

There are additional ordinances that are in development that could give the City more effective tools to address other nuisance behaviors and conditions that I’d like to push forward over the next year.  Our laws should be balanced, rewarding good behavior and sanctioning poor choices.

I propose the following:

  • Hypodermic syringes should be illegal to possess on the beach or in any park in the City, unless under the immediate care of a physician for diabetes or other diagnosed medical necessities.
  • Tents that are used for overnight shelter on public property anywhere in the City should be taken down and removed during the day, except potentially at the beach during the summer.
  • It should be illegal to store, dismantle or reassemble parts from multiple bicycles, or to operate a bike chop shop on public property (with exceptions for fixing tires, brakes or chains on one’s personal bicycle).
  • We should prohibit the storage of personal property in public space, as long as the City provides some accommodation, such as a 55-gallon barrel for a determined period.
  • Stores who provide shopping carts should have to collect them from public spaces and prevent their removal.
  • We can strengthen our existing “stay away” order program, to make sure that folks who cause disturbances in public places do not return for a reasonable period of time.
  • I would like to see better parking control on West Cliff by limiting parking to three hours.
  • We can provide the police with greater authority to increase some ordinance violations to misdemeanors for those who have been previously cited on multiple occasions. This type of change would allow for a custodial arrest for the recalcitrant few.
  • We can reward good behavior by dismissing or offering amnesty for past citations to individuals who avoid being cited for a certain period of time.

We can improve our community.  It will take a commitment from each of us to follow the rule of law, control behaviors destructive the greater community, and help those who genuinely want and need help.

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