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Encampment Struggle and Suppression in Santa Cruz

by Robert Norse
The history below was intended as a prologue to an earlier post entitled "Documents on Homeless Encampments and Civil Rights". However its length grew, so I'm posting it separately. For the Documents go to .
Martin v. Boise was decided in September of 2018. Santa Cruz City Council failed to take action protecting the rights of its outdoor community and ignored the two-year long Freedom Sleeper protest.

Instead City Manager Martin Bernal ordered various harassment devices including enforcement of a "no First Amendment on City Hall grounds at night" ordinance, klieg lights spotlighting sleepers, loud toxic generators placed near sleepers, "no parking" zones, removal of the traditional grassy area around City Hall and its replacement with a stoney ground, and repeated rousts and citations for different ordinances.

In anticipation of the Martin v. Boise decision, the police avoided using the Campng ordinance there.

The shelter crisis (and the closing of the Winter Shelter) prompted many disabled elderly homeless to defy the "No First Amendment at night" law at City Hall. Dozens encamped there during the day and night. Mills then cracked down on the shelterless and drove the Survival Sleeper onto the sidewalk. Once there, his police falsely cited them for "blocking the sidewalk" and "public nuisance".

In response, new encampments downtown began to form. A growing number of visible homeless folks began survival camping next to the post office, recently fenced to "protect" the building from the "blight:" of the campers.

In the face of a Hepatitus A threat, Mills, then-Parks and Recreation Director Mario Garcia, and their boss, City Manager Martin Bernal opened up the San Lorenzo Benchlands as a campsite for more than 100 houseless persons providing portapotties and trash pick-up's (though shutting bathrooms).

In February 2018, anticipating commercial use of the benchlands and again ignoring the spring shelter crisis, police closed the campground, began harassing and citing the refugees. 60 or so of the former San Lorenzo survival sleepers were placed in a fenced-in barbed-wire lot at 1220 River St. at a cost of over $75,000 a month.

When some migrated to the London (Louden) Nelson Center area and the adjacent Laurel Park, Supervisor Iseth Rae ordered the bathrooms there closed and locked. City bureaucrats had previously ordered (without public input or vote) a black iron fence around the park and patrols of First Alarm security guards.

Repeated promises by Bernal and his go-to assistant Susie O'Hara of adequate shelter "just around the corner" were repeatedly broken when no Navigation Center appeared in the summer as promised, and the 1220 River St. campground was dispersed in the fall of 2018. In response, to homeless going to the beach to sleep, Mills' police directed them to Depot Park, and then to the area behind Ross at the Gateway Shopping Center.

O'Hara's promises of helping improve conditions at the Ross Camp were again betrayed when former Progressive Justin Cummings voted with the reactionary Watkins Council majority to close the Ross Camp without adequate alternative shelter.

Homeless residents there formed the Ross Camp Council and joined the California Homeless Union. They initiated a lawsuit, claiming that Ross Camp protected vulnerable elders and women as well as providing community and shelter. The lawsuit briefly held off the City's cops and bulldozers, which attacked in early May. Several; hundred were dispersed, most without shelter, though some token and limited alternatives were offered (a 7-day stay at the San Lorenzo Benchlands, and the reopening of 1220).

Subsequently former Ross resident, one-time firefighter, and Pogonip refugee Desiree Quintero was killed by a falling tree--as Santa Cruz authorities reported a massive increase in the homeless death rate in 2019.

O'Hara's rosy predictions of shelter prospects were again revealed as false with no Navigation Center appearing that summer in spite of a massive influx of funding. Under Salvation Army management, the "lucky sixty" still weathering a cold and wet winter at 1220 were held under prison-like conditions--being denied the right to come and go by foot, to have visitors in their tents, or to take showers there for most of the season.

In January of 2020, the 1220 residents were removed to the National Guard Armory. A standard winter shelter for many years, it was passed over the previous year and for most of the winter to "respect the sensibilities" of nearby neighbors apparently pained at the sight of homeless people nearby. However the March Armory use will end in a month and a half with only the much-criticized Laurel St. shelter with a capacity of 60 or so, and a waiting list available--again in spite of massive funding.

Many of Bernal and O'Hara's promises were made in the shadow of the Martin v. Boise decision--which removed the Camping Ban as a "tool" for moving the homeless out of sight and/or out of town. Instead police and their ranger auxiliary began to use other ordinances such as the City's unique "stay away" law that allows police themselves to issue stay-away orders after giving an infraction in a park, no matter how minor.

Additionally Mills is pushing a 7-point plan to restore and expand criminalization of homeless people in Santa Cruz (power point presentation at Instead of establishing survival campgrounds City Council's reactionary minority--now a majority with Cummings--created the CACH (Community Advisory Committee on Homelessness) committee which spent half a year chatting about by-laws, procedures, etc. Their mid-winter recommendations for shelter were ignored and delayed until late February. Much of their attention was focused on giving the police new "anti-Camping" tools.

However, various other generally dormant organizations like the local ACLU, somewhat empowered by the Boise v. Martin decision have presented a letter to the City Council and entered into negotiations with the City Attorney demanding changes in the proposed Camping ordinances. Unfortunately these discussions ignore the much more widespread police use of alternate ordinances like stay away order, 'closed area", "no trespass on public property", "public nuisance", "illegal lodging", and "blocking the sidewalk".

The narrow legalistic focus on the Camping Ban is typical of the local ACLU, as is its lament that it can "do nothing:" without action from the northern California regional ACLU (which is now supporting narrow demands around the Camping Ban,. but not apparently around the more widely used pretexts for denying those outside the right to sleep at night.

The California Homeless Union, while active elsewhere (in Salinas and Marysville) has not followed up on the its promises of organizing, legal support, and activist assistance to stop Mills' sweeps. Activist McHenry says attorney Anthony Prince is "waiting" until the City presents its new Camping ordinance.

Meanwhile, police attacks on survival encampments roll on. See the latest attacks on the Washington St. camp with the arrest of the musician and community leader Cooper at . Union president Alicia Kuhl denounced the crackdown and reported she was provided blankets and survival gear for the uprooted refugees.

On Tuesday February 4th at Louden Nelson "no bathrooms for those not in a program" 'Community' Center, folks will gather for a march to the nearby police station to demand the return of survival gear stolen from the Cooper encampment on Washington St. last Thursday (January 30th). See "Restore Stolen Property! March to SCPD Central ! " at

Santa Cruz Homeless Union activists have begun a series of Resistance forums at the Resource Center for Non-Violence on Wednesday February 5th at 4:30 PM. Next Wednesday February 4th 2 Berkeley activists--writer/singer Carol Denney, and California Homeless Union attorney Anthony Prince--will be speaking there.
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