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What does the Supreme Court homeless encampments case mean for Santa Cruz?

Rows of pallet shelters — 64-square-foot portable structures with lockable doors, outlets for chargers, heating, windows, and beds — at the Housing Matters campus on Coral Street in Santa Cruz.
Erin Malsbury
/
KAZU News
Rows of pallet shelters — 64-square-foot portable structures with lockable doors, outlets for chargers, heating, windows, and beds — at the Housing Matters campus on Coral Street in Santa Cruz.

On an afternoon in May, the sidewalks along Santa Cruz’s Coral Street are lined with tents, making it one of the city’s largest unsanctioned homeless encampments at this time. Some of the residents have been unsheltered for years, others for just a few months.

Deonna Everett, 68, says she became homeless in January. The experience forced her to adapt quickly.

In watching the people do what they do, I just went out and did the same thing,” Everett said. “[If] you want to be risen up from the dirt, you know, you've got to get a pallet. Because if you don't, you sleep in the dirt, in the mud. And that can cause diseases and viruses.”

When she spoke with KAZU in mid-May, Everett said police officers had cleared the Coral Street encampment three times in the preceding two weeks.

“They come in with a dumpster, and they'll take everything you got and they will throw it away,” she said.

After police sweep the encampment, Everett and others typically leave Coral Street for a day or two and then come back and start from square one — gathering supplies to cook with and sleep on. Possessions rarely survive a sweep, according to Everett.

“They're taking from the homeless and people that are just scraping by just to try and make it a little more comfortable and safer for themselves,” she said, which can make it more difficult to stay focused on finding permanent housing. If you don't have a place to go and stay without harassing, you don't have the time to look for a place to live permanently.”

As it stands now, the City of Santa Cruz is required to have shelter space available before forcing unhoused people to move. Larry Imwalle, the city’s homelessness response manager, says in the days before an encampment closure, the city offers shelter to every resident, sometimes more than once.

But those requirements could be about to change. The United States Supreme Court is slated to make a ruling by the end of June in Grants Pass v. Johnson, a case brought by a small Oregon city. The question the justices are considering is whether cities should have the authority to legally punish people for sleeping outside in the absence of “adequate temporary shelter.” If the Supreme Court sides with the City of Grants Pass, that would override a 2018 precedent set by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the case Martin v. Boise, which required cities to offer shelter before clearing an encampment.

Offers of shelter are often complicated though. Everett says she was offered shelter multiple times since becoming homeless, but she declined because she didn’t want to be separated from her daughter, who she said is also on Coral Street.

Tom Stagg, the chief initiatives officer at Housing Matters (a nonprofit on Coral Street that provides support for unhoused people) says it’s pretty common for people to decline shelter. The main reasons can be summarized as “the three P’s,” according to Stagg.

It's partners, pets, and possessions,” he said. “So if a shelter is able to offer a space where a person can go in with their partner, or a person can go in with their pets, or if they can go in with their stuff, that makes a big difference.”

Chunky, an unhoused resident’s dog, sits on a chair at the Housing Matters campus.
Elena Neale-Sacks
/
KAZU News
Chunky, an unhoused resident’s dog, sits on a chair at the Housing Matters campus.

The two city-funded tent shelters in Santa Cruz — 1220 River Street Transitional Community Camp and City Overlook at the National Guard Armory — do allow pets and possessions, as long as they fit inside the 8-by-10 foot tents. But space is limited, with just 165 spots between the two shelters.

Everett and her partner are waiting for a pallet shelter at Housing Matters, a 64-square-foot portable structure with lockable doors, outlets for chargers, heating, windows, and beds.

We're waiting for a pallet, you know, and so we're waiting for the process to happen. But until then, you're fighting the elements out there,” Everett said. “Not only are you fighting the elements, you're fighting with rules, regulations. You're fighting with the police, and you're asking people to be a little more compassionate.”

Tom Stagg, the chief initiatives officer at Housing Matters, discusses pallet shelters.
Erin Malsbury
/
KAZU News
Tom Stagg, the chief initiatives officer at Housing Matters, discusses pallet shelters.

As of last year, there were 1,028 people experiencing homelessness in Santa Cruz. Of those, 749 were unsheltered.

If the Supreme Court upends precedent in Grants Pass v. Johnson, Santa Cruz could choose to clear homeless encampments without having shelter available. Stagg, from Housing Matters, is bracing for that possibility.

“The potential decision would definitely give some cover to cities to be able to move people or to ticket them even when there's not shelter beds available,” he said. “I hope that that's not the decision that’s made locally.”

Imwalle, the city homelessness response manager, is confident it won’t be. He envisions the same process continuing regardless of the court’s decision.

But as long as homelessness persists in Santa Cruz, the encampment will probably keep coming back, or it will move somewhere else. Because where can people go? Even if everyone offered shelter accepts it, that still leaves hundreds without a place to sleep.

Elena Neale-Sacks is a freelance reporter and producer at KAZU. Prior to joining the station, they worked as a podcast producer at The Oregonian. Elena is an alum of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.