Monday, February 29, 2016

Individuals Displaced in Downtown Homeless Sweeps Join Freedom Sleepers Protest

On February 23, the Freedom Sleepers held their 33rd community sleepout at Santa Cruz City Hall. Attendance at the sleepout increased shortly after 3:30 am, following the police sweeps and move-alongs of homeless individuals sleeping at the Main Branch of the Santa Cruz Library and at the Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church, which are located across the street from city hall. At least one individual sleeping outside of the library was issued a citation by police. Those joining the Freedom Sleepers who were displaced by the sweeps were able to sleep until the morning without further intervention from the authorities.

Santa Cruz police move-along sleepers at the Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church

The front steps of the Prophet Elias Church remained clear of sleepers for the rest of the evening, but the number of sleepers surrounding the library increased following the police sweeps.

As soon as the police concluded the sweeps, one person who officers had moved along from the church simply crossed the street and made her way directly over to the library, where she went back to sleep on the ground using only a single blanket and what appeared to be a jacket as her pillow.

Many homeless individuals who own very few possessions have participated in the Freedom Sleepers protests by sleeping on the sidewalk using only cardboard and a single blanket.

Since July 4, the Freedom Sleepers, some of whom are homeless and some who are not, have been sleeping one night a week at city hall to protest local laws that criminalize homelessness, such as Santa Cruz's camping ban, the sit-lie law, and the city parks stay away orders.

Police haven't targeted the Freedom Sleepers, who sleep on the sidewalk in front of city hall, for several months now, and the February 23 sleepout was the first in some time to not have a squad of First Alarm security guards employed by the city watching over them and the protest.

Many of the sleepers consider the political protest a "safe sleep" zone, considering the fact that police have been reluctant to cite or arrest individuals sleeping on the sidewalk.

The decision to sleep on the sidewalk was strategic: the city's sit-lie law does not apply to the area surrounding city hall, and the only law police could realistically use to move-along the sleepers would be the camping ban. Obstructing the sidewalk is also a possibility, but more of a long shot considering the small "footprint" many of the sleepers leave.

The city and the police had been going through great lengths to prevent people from sleeping on City Hall property during the protests. Following the first sleepout in July, police conducted raids on every one of the sleepouts for months, citing many for trespassing, and even arresting some.

Many of the Freedom Sleepers had originally been sleeping in city hall's courtyard area, which is closed to the public at night. During the Fall, city landscapers tore up city hall's lawns and placed "Area Closed" signs around the courtyard area area. Piles of dirt remain on the lawn and the city stopped working on the area in 2015.

The next Freedom Sleepers community sleepout is planned for Tuesday, March 1. 

3:30 am police sweep at Santa Cruz Library on February 24

Police issue a sleeper a citation

This person sleeping in front of the library was moved-along by police

Church Street

Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church

The church is marked "no trespassing"

The front of the church remained clear of sleepers for the rest of the night

Sleepers who returned to (or did not leave) the library after the police sweep

Freedom Sleepers sleepout on February 23-24

Freedom Sleepers

Two of those displaced by the police sweeps earlier that evening sleep with the Freedom Sleepers

Freedom Sleepers

Freedom Sleepers statement about Take Back Santa Cruz: "Take Back Santa Cruz are Abusive Fascists"

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Santa Cruz Police Target Homeless Sleepers Downtown

This month the downtown post office in Santa Cruz was cleared by police of what had been a large and regular presence of sleepers at night. The post office had been used as shelter for 6-12 people a night for some time. A homeless man who was sleeping outside of Bookshop Santa Cruz and cited with two other sleepers for trespassing this month said he thought the police were ticketing at increased rate recently to get homeless people to move along before the next rains arrived.

SCPD officer Dominique Hohmann places her hand on her gun as she issues a man sleeping outside of Bookshop Santa Cruz a citation.

The current enforcement patterns in the City of Santa Cruz are an extension of the homeless sweeps that began in 2012. According to Santa Cruz Police Department statistics, the number of camping ban citations issued by police officers is presently at the same level as when the department dramatically increased enforcement of the ordinance during their widely publicized series of homeless sweeps initiated in the city in July of 2012. (see chart below)

Reports have come in from a variety of sources noting that police have been methodically targeting the most common locations in in the commercial corridor of downtown Santa Cruz where homeless individuals sleep. One member of the Freedom Sleepers said this has been happening since January. The Freedom Sleepers are a group of activists who have been sleeping at Santa Cruz City Hall on Tuesday nights since July 4 to protest local laws that criminalize homelessness. Additionally, many of the Freedom Sleepers believe that sleeping as part of a larger protest group at city hall has provided them some level of safety from law enforcement.

One of the three sleepers cited at Bookshop Santa Cruz this month was a 59-year-old woman who had no bedding. She was using her jacket to cover herself as she crouched and reclined somewhat while sitting on several thin layers of newspaper. (see photos below)

A grey-haired man next to her used cardboard as a sleeping pad on the tile walkway. He covered himself with a blanket and a lightweight sleeping bag that was unzipped and opened up.

The third person used a higher quality sleeping bag and slept on a manufactured sleeping pad on top of a tarp.

The three people were sleeping outside of an unused entrance to the bookstore, on the Front Street side of the building, in the middle of the night. All three were elders and were sleeping with a minimal amount of possessions.

Officer Dominique Hohmann, of the Santa Cruz Police Department, was the first police officer on the scene. She began writing up the paperwork for the first citation before any of the three sleepers were awake, and before a back-up officer arrived.

She then woke the first person up and gathered his personal information as he lay in his sleeping bag.

When it came time for him to sign the citation, Hohmann leaned down to hand it to him while placing her free hand on her gun The move clearly demonstrated how potentially volatile the situation was.

She kept her hand on her gun during the entire encounter with the man.

Back-up officer David Gunter then arrived in another patrol vehicle.

With Gunter close to her, Hohmann continued to hold her gun in the same manner while issuing the next two people their citations.

According to Hohmann, Bookshop Santa Cruz has a trespassing complaint letter filed with the City Of Santa Cruz that gives police the authority to automatically cite individuals for trespassing if they are seen on the property after hours.

The first person cited told police this was not true.

He claimed that Bookshop Santa Cruz had no such letter filed and he did not believe that the people sleeping there were in violation of the law.

When another of the three asked why they were being cited for trespassing, Hohmann said it was just one of the laws that she could potentially write them up for. She said she could also write them up for lying on the sidewalk and for "camping."

"If you prefer a camping one, I can write you for that also," she said in a condescending tone.

Without waiting for an answer, Hohmann told the woman to "have a great night" before returning to her patrol vehicle.

Before she left, the man who claimed Bookshop Santa Cruz did not have a trespassing complaint on file with the police shouted that he would, "see her in court."

Neither of the officers on the scene provided the group with any information about places they could sleep legally or safely.

Bookshop Santa Cruz

SCPD Officers Dominique Hohmann and David Gunter cite individuals sleeping outside of Bookshop Santa Cruz.

Incidents occurring on other evenings in February reveal details of the energy Santa Cruz police direct towards homeless people sleeping at night downtown.

At about 11:30 pm on one evening this month, two Santa Cruz police officers confronted a person who was sleeping in front of the downtown Santa Cruz post office. The person was sleeping with barely any supplies at all when he was woken up and cited.

Santa Cruz police cite a man sleeping outside of the downtown post office

At about 1am on another evening this month, a Santa Cruz police officer and his sergeant were called to the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium by a First Alarm security guard in order to move along a homeless person sleeping outside one of the Center Street side exits of the building.

The sergeant told him that "City Hall" had a trespassing complaint letter on file with the police department and that they would cite him for trespassing if he did not leave.

The homeless man said the first Alarm guard had asked him to leave his sleeping spot at the Civic, but that he did not leave fast enough for the guard The guard then grabbed at the man's bicycle, which was locked to a hand rail, and attempted to forcibly move it away from the civic auditorium. That was when the guard called the police on the man Police did not issue him a citation and the homeless man left after the warning.

Santa Cruz police move along a person sleeping at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium

The homeless sweeps by police have come at a great cost to the city.

In 2012, SCPD statistics showed that 42 percent of all arrests and 32 percent of all citations issued by the department were for "nuisance crimes" related to the homeless population. An article published in 2013 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported that assistant city manager Tina Shull estimated the police response to incidents involving the homeless would cost the city around $1 million annually when applying that year's police data.

Additionally, the city contracted with First Alarm to patrol downtown Santa Cruz for $350,000 at that time.

Data from the Santa Cruz Police show that the number of citations issued for illegal camping has skyrocketed since the department, along with the department of Parks and Recreation, initiated the homeless sweeps in 2012. The decision to initiate those sweeps were departmental, and never went before the city council for approval.

At the city council's most recent public safety study session held on November 3, Deputy Chief of Police Rick Martinez explained the increase in citations in 2012 was the result of the establishment of a "camping" hotline by the SCPD and the city's parks department. The sweeps are supported by a "directed enforcement team," which focuses on targeting homeless sleeping sites in the city.

Nuisance Crimes Citations chart presented by SCPD at the city council public safety study session on November 3

In 2014 the number of camping citations issued by police reached a recent high. Martinez gave a breakdown of those statistics.

2096 camping citations were issued in 2014. 822 of those, or 39%, were issued on public property, and 61% were issued on private property.

Martinez noted that many nuisance citations are issued at business locations that have a trespassing complaint on file with police, but he did not go into specifics, and the statement seems to be contradicted in the "Nuisance Crimes Citations" chart that was included in the public safety presentation. The chart shows trespassing citations have remained at a constant before and after the initiation of the 2012 homeless sweeps.

The statistics presented by police at the study session did not include the number of times homeless people were contacted by police when a citation was not issued.

Neither was the overall cost of contacting, citing, and arresting so many homeless individuals. 

Freedom Sleepers sleep on the sidewalk in front of Santa Cruz City Hall at the protest on February 9

Freedom Sleepers protest, February 9

Freedom Sleepers protest at Santa Cruz City Hall on February 2

Freedom Sleepers protest, February 2

Freedom Sleepers protest, February 2

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Santa Cruz Police Continue to "Protect" 75 River Street

Two individuals sat with their bicycles and other survival gear outside of one of the boarded up entrances to the vacant bank building located at 75 River Street in downtown Santa Cruz at about 2am on a weekday evening last week. This was enough to raise the attention of a Santa Cruz police officer in a patrol vehicle, who was then quickly joined by two more vehicles arriving at the location. After issuing one individual a citation, a police officer could be heard telling the pair they would be given 20 minutes to gather their belongings and leave. The police left and the two stayed there for about an hour and a half. 75 River Street has been vacant since 2008. Both the city and county of Santa Cruz have gone to great lengths, and costs, to "protect" the empty building.

Santa Cruz police arrive at 75 River Street last week.

The address of 75 River Street in Santa Cruz became infamous in 2011 when political activists occupied the building for three days during the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It had been left empty by its leaser, Wells Fargo Bank. Wells Fargo has another location directly across the street at 74 River, out of which the company actually conducts its business. The owner of 75 River Street is the wealthy and influential developer, Barry Swenson.

Hundreds of people entered the building during the course of the occupation. Activists had hoped to transform the former bank into a community center to provide free services to low-income and homeless individuals. Before the occupation it was common to see homeless people sleeping in front of, and all around, the property at 75 River Street.

Following the occupation, Santa Cruz police expended a great deal of resources targeting individuals who entered the building for arrest. In February of 2012, felony charges were filed against eleven individuals by the Santa Cruz County DA at the time, the late Bob Lee.

Lee stated publicly that someone needed to be held accountable so that Wells Fargo could be reimbursed financially for the damage done to the building during the occupation, which the business estimated to be over $20,000.

Charges against seven of the eleven individuals targeted would eventually be dismissed over the course of many court hearings. To resolve their legal issues, the final four defendants were tied up in court for more than three years at a still unknown cost to taxpayers.

That the Santa Cruz Police Department sent three patrol vehicles to 75 River Street to issue one person a citation this past week is not uncommon for the department. The department spends a great deal of its resources addressing the nuisance crimes committed by members of the city's street-bound population.

In 2012, for example, police statistics showed that 42 percent of all arrests and 32 percent of all citations issued by the Santa Cruz Police Department were for nuisance crimes related to the homeless population. An article published in 2013 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported that assistant city manager Tina Shull estimated the police response to incidents involving the homeless would cost the city around $1 million annually when applying that police data.

The bank was fenced off after the occupation. Photo: February 2012

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Activists "Carve Out" Space for Sitting and Relaxing in Downtown Monterey

Community members in Monterey returned to Alvarado Street on February 5 for their first sit-lie protest of 2016. The activists have been organizing protests once a month since February of last year to oppose the city's sit-lie law, which first went into effect in October of 2014. Future sit-ins will continue to be held on the first of the month, with the next protests planned for March 4 and April 1.

The sit-lie protests are organized by Direct Action Monterey Network (DAMN). Sec. 32-6.2 of the Monterey municipal code bans sitting or lying on most commercial sidewalks in Monterey between the hours of 7am and 9pm. Based on their outreach with Monterey's homeless community, DAMN believes the sit-lie ordinance is discriminatory and has been selectively enforced by police.

DAMN posted the following event announcement on Facebook in advance of the February 5 sit-in:

"On Friday, February 5th from 4pm-6pm we will once again sit down on the sidewalk on Alvarado Street in violation of Monterey's Sit/Lie Ban. Once a month, we carve out space for people to sit and relax and simply exist who would otherwise be kicked out by police/security.

"This ordinance is only one expression of Monterey's war against people without homes! End the criminalization of homelessness!

"The police have only given written warnings once in the past year of this campaign. After receiving a warning, you won't be cited if you don't do it again for 30 days. If you don't want to risk a warning/citation you can still stand near us and display signs.

"Meet in front of Walgreens on Alvarado Street in downtown Monterey. Bring signs and lawn chairs if you would like. Coffee will be provided! We will continue this action on the first Friday of every month from 4pm-6pm."