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Indybay FeatureRelated Categories: Santa Cruz Indymedia | Global Justice and Anti-Capitalism | Health, Housing, and Public Services | Police State and Prisons
At "Tent" Vigil, Community Members Demand End to Homeless Sweeps in Santa Cruz
Community members and homeless rights activists who are hoping to form a new, broad-based coalition with the intention of ending the criminalization of homelessness and sleep in Santa Cruz, held a candlelight "tent" vigil, rally, and march downtown on September 9. Over the last nine weeks, a series of raids targeting the homeless and known public sleep sites has been conducted as part of a coordinated effort by the Santa Cruz Police Department and the city's departments of Parks and Recreation and Public Works. "I've been in this town for 31 or 32 years. I have never seen a sweep like the one we've had in the last six or seven weeks," said Santa Cruz resident and homeless rights activist Becky Johnson.
According to the most recent update from the SCPD concerning their raids on the homeless, 461 citations have been issued, and there have been 140 arrests, 188 campsites posted for abatement, and 79 campsites "cleaned", all occurring over the course of the last nine weeks. In July, as the raids commenced, it was also announced that individuals with three or more outstanding citations for sleep related infractions would now have their cases handled in court as a criminal matter. This reversed the former policy where sleep infractions were handled as a civil matter. The City of Santa Cruz now effectively treats homelessness as a "three strikes, you're out" crime.
At the tent vigil, community members voiced their concerns over a string of city ordinances that have pushed homeless people from one location in the city to another sporadically over the last ten years, and how the enforcement of them by the SCPD and the Parks Department have thoroughly criminalized sleep. For example, beyond it being illegal to sleep in public at night in Santa Cruz, it is also a crime between the hours of 11pm and 8:30am to use a blanket to keep warm, even if a person is not sleeping. It was pointed out that the only new money local agencies have recently spent on the issue has been for the police raids, and for an increase in the fund for bus tickets that send homeless people involved in the local legal system out of town. To make matters worse, one more shelter space, the Paul Lee Loft, has recently been filled with residents from another facility and is no longer an option for people.
The vigil began on a "First Friday" afternoon at the courtyard in front of Santa Cruz City Hall when community members set up several small tents, one of which was decorated with slogans such as "Occupy The Commons." Demonstrators handed out fliers, and free food was served. The size of the group participating in the march and rally ranged from 30-75 people. In addition to houseless people, members of Occupy Santa Cruz and Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom (HUFF) were present, as was Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel (Pastor Steve) of the Circles Church.
As evening began to set in, candles were lit and distributed, and before the march, Pastor Steve said a few words. He quoted Thich Nhat Hahn, who said, "to make peace you need to be peace." He then offered demonstrators a thought for the beginning of the march: "Take a moment to find that place in your heart where you really believe in people; that's why you are here...and then when we are told to, let's step out and march with that intention."
Demonstrators first made their way to the Parks and Recreation office on Church Street, where Becky Johnson issued the department a "cease and desist" notice. She demanded the police department, public works, and parks and rec, "cease and desist this sweep effort." The notice dealt largely with the parks department's Danette Shoemaker, who Johnson referred to as, "the Czarina of Parks and Rec." The homeless sweeps began in July, and were first announced in a joint press release issued by the three agencies. In the cease and desist notice, Johnson wrote that Shoemaker has, "massive authority over public property throughout the city...she shut down all kinds of areas without any administrative process."
"These raids conducted under an obvious shelter emergency are unproductive, a waste of public resources, and in light of the lack of legal shelter available to these people, inhumane," Johnson asserted.
Also in the notice, Johnson suggested that merchants suffer as well when homeless camps are raided; the displaced individuals are forced to go into city parks and downtown business areas.
After issuing the cease and desist notice, demonstrators made their way to the San Lorenzo River Levee via Cathcart Street. Since early August, the entire levee area, a popular place to sleep for those located in the downtown area, has been closed to use by the public (see: City Installs 'Do Not Enter' Signs Around Entire Downtown Segment of San Lorenzo River http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2012/08/14/18719511.php).
On the levee trail, individuals re-lit their candles, and those who wanted to spoke. Becky Johnson recalled how then Mayor Mike Rotkin and the SCPD worked ten years ago to close the levee trail from dusk to dawn. The trail, which spans both sides of the San Lorenzo for approximately two miles, is where many homeless people have been driven to, Johnson said, as they struggle to find a place for the night, and David Silva agreed.
Silva, a former social worker, became homeless when local funding was cut for housing for AIDS patients by the city council, and for him, the levee was, "like a community center." As a homeless person, Silva needed the levee area, "to survive." It was a place, he said, where people could meet and figure out where to be that was safe. "This levee saved my life more than once."
One young homeless man spoke, describing how he and his friends felt that the city didn't care about the safety of the people who were sleeping by the river (or their possessions) when local crews removed large amounts of vegetation from its banks as part of the summer's levee closure. "The city should really recognize what they are potentially digging up when they are just knocking everything down," he said.
A homeless mother of two said that homeless people are being "profiled" now, and that, "criminal charges are being created just for them."
"In a group of many, if you are known to be homeless, then you will be charged with whatever is going on, regardless if your actions have anything to do with it," she said.
About the sweeps in general, she concluded that, "This removal of homeless people, the destruction of their homes on free land....so many different people are being hurt."
Marchers then made their way to Pacific Avenue, where they headed north. Already slowing the vehicular traffic that followed them, the group stopped at the corner at Soquel Avenue to watch a Burning Man-style performance happening on the sidewalk in front of the new Forever 21 store. For a short time, a large section of Pacific Avenue became "the commons" for pedestrians, demonstrators, and First Friday revelers alike as members of Occupy Santa Cruz danced to the drumming. Moving on, demonstrators spent some time on the large sidewalk space in front of Oneill's before returning to City Hall for more speakers and entertainment.
Near the end of the evening, Steve Pleich, a current Santa Cruz City Council candidate, research lawyer, and Director of the Homeless Persons Legal Assistance Project, gave a description of the sense of community that was uniting the new group that could form the basis for a whole new type of coalition.
"Coalitions are an old style of activism and often times they rise up around issues or people and they are good for awareness and energy, but that is the old style of coalition," Pleich said. "Tonight we are here to establish a new style coalition and it's a coalition of the mind, a coalition of the heart, and a coalition of the spirit around homeless people...because homeless people and the homeless community are not a condition to be analyzed and assessed, they are an experience to be felt in your heart and kept in your heart forever...in my experience, if you don't have it in your heart, what's in your head really doesn't matter."
Scroll down to view more photos. Videos of the speakers are at:
At "Tent" Vigil, Community Members Demand End to Homeless Sweeps (part 2)
Tent Vigil - Downtown Santa Cruz
No Sleep Till Brooklyn
Brent Adams, Steve Pleich
For videos of the speakers, see:
At "Tent" Vigil, Community Members Demand End to Homeless Sweeps (part 2)