SCPD Sweeps Homeless Camp, Putting Dozens at Higher Risk of Contracting Covid-19

Written by Angela Landes (News Writer)

On Friday, October 2nd, a multi-day-long standoff between local activists and police ended with the eviction of dozens of residents from their home near the Food not Bombs operation in Santa Cruz. The standoff began earlier that Tuesday when local housing activists and police abolitionists had gotten word that the Santa Cruz Police Department was preparing to sweep the camp at Lot 27, where many unhoused folks were then living. This parking lot and adjacent levee area had become a relatively safe place for people to sleep without harassment, as the volunteer group Food not Bombs had been stationed there providing free food for over a month. The space allowed people to largely stay in one area without frequently moving, minimizing the risk of spreading disease between people, but was in jeopardy due to the city’s wish to evict residents from the parking lot.

Once local leftist groups such as Copwatch Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz Mutual Aid had gotten word of the sweep, these various organizations and individuals formed communication pathways online so in case of an emergency the community could be notified and arrive to help defend the space quickly. Individuals would volunteer to stay at the camp and report through these online communications if backup was needed, so that the police would know their actions were seen upfront in the public eye. This successfully held off the police, causing Jessica A. York to write an article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel titled ¨Tussle over Santa Cruz homeless camp ends in draw¨ after the first day of defending the parking lot. However, the conflict was not truly over. 

With so many witnesses to the words and actions of the police, multiple discrepancies in their actions became clear. One of the first officers to arrive on the scene earlier in the week explained that they were responding to a call about a fight in that location, and not coming to sweep the camp. The radio communications records were later checked by allies of Copwatch Santa Cruz, however, and there was no such call at that time. Additionally, the police vacillated in their testimony as to when they would return to the scene after leaving. On the second day of the standoff, officers were recorded stating that they would come back in a week, that they would not return the next day, and that they did not know when they would return. However, some of these statements proved to be false as multiple officers arrived around 8:00 AM the next morning and swept the camp a few days later.

During the interactions with the police, one particular anonymous resident who uses a cane to aid in his walking was targeted by SCPD. An officer asked him to set down his cane as it could potentially be used as a weapon, and the man refused due to it being a mobility device. The interaction ended and the police left, clarifying to the people there that they would not return that day. That night at about midnight, however, police came back into the camp and arrested this disabled man after tackling him to the ground. The officer’s bodycam fell off and was soon returned to the police by a bystander. The man was quickly released but was again arrested Friday morning during the sweep. Local activists are currently organizing court support for the arrested man, including attempting to get his confiscated belongings back to him.

Many members and allies of the unhoused community have been concerned that the recent epidemic of sweeps in Santa Cruz violates Martin v. Boise, a Supreme Court ruling limiting the criminalization of homelessness by preventing police from arresting anyone for sleeping on public property when adequate and accessible housing is not offered, among other similar limitations. However, this particular sweep has been found to not violate Martin v. Boise. Angela Landes, member of Copwatch Santa Cruz and Executive Committee member of the Democratic Socialists of America Santa Cruz corresponded with an attorney who is very familiar with the supreme court case inputted that, “The attorney explained that, bottom line, the cops are allowed to move you but cannot arrest you for sleeping in a public place,”  Landes said. ¨The police have convinced some into believing they have been offering housing, but these housing options, such as the city-run camp at the Benchlands, have waiting lists of hundreds of people and are planned to be closing within a few months. The police are providing options and technically complying with Martin v. Boise, but the options are by no means adequate and accessible.¨

The injury, loss of property, loss of homes, and loss of community space are all tragic effects of this event. However, this also puts people at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 due to being forced to move to another location. The dozens of people who had been living in the parking lot area had a secure place where there was a very small chance of disease being passed between the residents and anyone else, which provided comfort and mental ease. However, the people living there are now forced to disperse among other micro-communities in Santa Cruz, greatly increasing the risk of the spread of COVID-19 among those people. Because of this, the state of California has told local governments to not sweep camps during the pandemic, but the Santa Cruz Police Department had ignored these guidelines numerous times since the pandemic hit the city. In fact, the city council passed an ordinance earlier this year which would require any distributor of food in the city to possess a permit, putting the local houseless advocacy and mutual aid group Food not Bombs at risk of being shut down. This likely is part of the reason police have been making the volunteer organization move around town more than four times this year, making it difficult for people to locate them. In one instance, the organization was forced to station themselves on a part of the levee which was then flooding, as the police would not allow them to go anywhere else. This was after they were moved to a cramped location where they were unable to practice the stringent social distancing guidelines the group likes to have. The sweeping of Lot 27 has caused Food not Bombs to move once again, continuing the cat and mouse chase which puts so many people in our county at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. 


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