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Sleep and Resistance in Downtown Santa Cruz
On April 17 a group of homeless community members in Santa Cruz initiated a high visibility sleep-protest, which was held downtown at the main branch of the post office. Sleepers subsequently occupied several locations outside of the front of the building for four days, with many individuals continuing to sleep there in protest after being cited for violating the sleeping ban or for obstructing the sidewalk. Some of those cited under Santa Cruz's municipal code 6.36.010, the ban on sleep in public places, say they were on the Homeless Services Center wait list for shelter spaces at the time they were cited. The protest was organized in support of decriminalizing sleep, and individuals primarily participated in the protest because they needed a safe place for the night. "We are just looking for a safe place to sleep, and we are really trying to get the sleeping ban lifted," a homeless participant named Zack said. Yoyo, another homeless participant added, "you can't sleep anywhere...it shouldn't be illegal to sleep." [Photos were taken the evening of April 20 through the morning of April 21]
One individual at the protest felt that section 8 of the Homeless Bill of Rights (AB 5), which is currently making its way through the California State Legislature, described what motivated his participation. Section 8 asserts that homeless people have the right, "not to be subject to criminal sanctions for resting or sleeping in a public place, including vehicles legally parked on public property in a non-obstructive manner."
The same individual referred to their presence at the post office as a protest "of sorts," saying that, "there's no marching, there's no chants....we just want to be seen."
On the first night of the sleep-out on Wednesday, April 17 the group said there were about 12-15 participants who, before sleeping, crafted protest signs and displayed them to passers-bye. By Saturday, April 20, their fourth continuous night at the post office, the protest signs were gone, but the individuals continued to gather and sleep there.
"We're gearing down our main plan...I think our presence is enough here," one individual said.
Conditions were difficult for the protesters and he added, "really we just want to sleep. We are really tired...We really haven't slept much in the last week."
"This is affecting the health of the homeless community and we are seeking a change to that," Zack said. He noted the group had been taking naps in the day, but that was nowhere near sufficient.
"We need to be able to sleep, and a lot of the homeless don't because they are afraid of taking some jail time, and it leads to a lot of drug problems. It leads to a lot of people smoking crank and staying up all night just to not get ticketed," he said.
That was reflected in the number of sleepers at the post office on Saturday night. At 12am there were five individuals sleeping, but by 2am there was a total of 11 people present.
The group says they were pushed from sleeping in the woods, were they preferred to be, to the more exposed location of downtown Santa Cruz.
"I'm not trying to take anybody on tonight....I'm going to go to sleep tonight and I'm going to be woken up by a police officer no matter where I do it," said one participant.
"So we might as well do it where they can see us," Zack added.
"We really like the woods, and we are very respectful to the woods," he said.
"We don't leave trash and we're not drug users."
"They've driven us into the city" he said, adding that sleeping at the highly visible location of the post office is, "kind of the only way to get our message across."
"All we are trying to do is be peaceful and sleep in our natural environment...and this is definitely not it," he said.
The group explained they weren't asking for any expanded services for homeless people as part of their protest. They said they personally had "everything" they needed.
"We want for nothing," Zack said.
For those who need homeless services, he said it seemed "pretty good" for them in Santa Cruz.
"In this town it's comfortable, but you have to run and hide."
The sleep protest was first initiated at the Santa Cruz Main Post Office following two negative incidents Zach, Yoyo, and their friends experienced locally as self-described homeless "travelers." They also referred to themselves as "home-free" and "roofless" as alternative terms for "homeless."
In one incident, the group says they were trying to find a place to sleep in Pogonip, a large wooded city park located along the green belt of Santa Cruz. Members of their group were arrested for being in an area that was closed, which they say they was unclear due to the signage. When the authorities found them in the closed area, according to the group they were asked, "what if a family came by here to hang out?"
"We're a sore sight to see, I guess," Zack said, interpreting the implications of the comment. To him it didn't make sense, and he wondered how, if the area in Pogonip was clearly off limits, would a family see them in the first place.
He and the group said they are used to being discriminated against because of their appearance, even though they are clean and dress like average hikers. "We weren't doing anything wrong."
"They've singled us out," Zach said. "I think they are trying to make it known that they don't want the travelers here."
"Because we choose to live outside should not strip us of our basic rights of sleep and of being able to sit in a place," he said.
The second negative incident the group experienced was when a group of individuals they say had "Eastsiders" tattoos picked a fight with them as they were returning from Seabright Beach along the train trestle over San Lorenzo River. That encounter was brief, but four days later on the levee they say the "Eastsiders" came out of nowhere and immediately resumed the conflict.
The Santa Cruz Police Department became involved and the group of travelers said they told officers that the "Eastsiders" were the ones to attack them first, but officers told them that they "shouldn't hang out in the areas that the people could find us."
Zack claims that officers knew that he and his group of friends were homeless, and as a result he felt they were, "basically saying you guys are not welcome here," and he said that even though the Eastsiders were giving them a hard time, the SCPD were, "not going to do anything about it."
"We were downtown in spots we hang out at all the time," Zack said. "They know I am roofless and homefree."
Zack wanted to make it clear that, "we're not looking to fight with anybody ever, we are looking to exist peacefully."
When asked if the police have ever told them where they are supposed to go when they have been forced to move on from where they wanted to sleep, Zack said they, "suggest things that don't really make sense."
"Like go to Capitola [or] Monterey," but Zack noted that, "it's illegal to sleep in Capitola too. It's illegal to sleep anywhere in Santa Cruz County."
"There is no help from them at all, and we didn't expect any help from them," he said.
Zack and the group are seeking broader political change related to the sleeping ban, as opposed to the expansion of specific services, and they have been active politically, attending Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom, Take Back Santa Cruz, and Santa Cruz City Council meetings.
Zack said he has been concerned that community members in Santa Cruz were using the terms drug addict, transient, and homeless person, "almost interchangeably," after he attended a recent forum on public safety put on by the city.
This was especially pertinent to the group because, as Zach's friend explained, "intravenous drug users don't travel much."
They feel that travelers have been miss-characterized on a variety of levels and that has lead to poor policy decisions regarding public safety and the homeless in Santa Cruz.
"The whole take back Santa Cruz thing is kind of ridiculous because they are trying to take back Santa Cruz from people who don't have anything," Zack said. "We don't have anything to begin with."
"They are pushing us into a smaller and smaller smaller corner," he said, "and eventually it is going to be a FEMA camp or something like that."
When Zack attended the "Families First" rally that was organized by Take Back Santa Cruz and held at Harvey West Park on March 26, he observed that, "a lot of those speeches were very very very reminiscent of what Third Reich speeches and what Hitler had to say, and they are scapegoating the homeless."
"I followed the march to make sure that nobody was going to screw with the homeless people," he said. "Me and a couple of other people were kind of policing it...to make sure that nobody got violent with any of the people out here."
While Zack has not heard of any incidents where Take Back Santa Cruz members have directly attacked homeless people, he feels the "sentiment" is there in the group.
One of the signs that Zack made and held at the post office during the protests read, "Why is it illegal for me to exist?"
One other issue raised during the protests has to do with one the chapters of the local sleeping ban that provides relief from prosecution under the ordinance if those cited are on one of the homeless shelter's waiting lists.
Santa Cruz municipal code 6.36.055 states that, "A person shall not be in violation of this chapter if, at the time of his or her citation for a violation of this chapter, either: the winter shelter at the Santa Cruz National Guard Armory is filled to capacity; or the person is currently on the waiting list for shelter service through one of the shelter programs offered by the Homeless Services Center or the River Street Shelter in Santa Cruz."
Participants who were on the Homeless Services Center wait list say they were cited by SCPD at the protest regardless of their wait list status, and critics have questioned the efficacy of this enforcement strategy. Civil rights issues aside, sleeping bans nationwide similar to MC 6.36.010 have been shown to be very costly for cities to enforce.
When interviewed on the fourth and final evening of the protest, the young group of travelers who initiated the action didn't recognize some of the other people sleeping there with them at the post office. A small group of individuals that was sleeping to the south end of the post office steps was made up of older individuals who carried their possessions in a shopping cart.
Those present at the post office during the course of the protests appeared to represent a cross section of homeless people in Santa Cruz, and their stated intentions were similar to that of those participating in previous local sleep-protests such as PeaceCamp 2010 and Occupy Santa Cruz. During those actions, a segment of those participating included homeless people who were hoping to make a political statement through the action, as well as homeless people who were motivated not necessarily out of political justifications, but because they were looking for a safe place to sleep as part of their nightly routine of survival.
"Traveler" Yoyo said he has lived in the area on and off since 2007, and he recalled much of the political change that led up to several anti-homeless policies being enacted during that time period.
Other community members present had long term political ties to homeless issues in the area as well. One woman who slept for all four nights of the protest has made her home in Santa Cruz on and off since her involvement with Occupy Santa Cruz in 2011.
One man who said he slept in front of the post office on April 19, passed by on the evening of the 20th, saying he wished he could participate for one more evening but that he had received a citation that morning from the SCPD for laying on the sidewalk. The man has been homeless for several years locally, and he described the difficulties he has had as a result of losing his career in the economic downturn.
He said that recently it has been very difficult for him to find a place to sleep in Santa Cruz.
At 3am on Sunday morning (April 21), approximately two dozen people could be seen sleeping in a variety of other public locations that were within a two block radius of the post office.
The "Imagine Positive Change" meters were installed to discourage panhandling in downtown Santa Cruz.