SANTA CRUZ — At the nexus of compassion and politics, Santa Cruz has nurtured a steady crop of activists focused on bringing the struggles of homelessness to the forefront of city conversations.
While an untold segment of the community has spent its time volunteering and its money on efforts reaching out to those in need, others have opted to stand in the spotlight and serve as vocal advocates — and political lighting rods — for those who cannot or choose not to speak in their own defense.
In recent years, activists have gone a step further, working to rally large groups of homeless people to camp together as a form of constitutionally protected protest. The city responded to one of the most contentious and longest-running protests, a weekly occurrence launched in 2015 on the steps of City Hall and operating under the guise of the “Freedom Sleepers,” with stringent enforcement of city park operational rules, increased overnight security patrols, police observation, locked public bathrooms, stadium lighting and roped-off areas of the the complex’s lawns.
In recent months, the city’s large unsanctioned homeless encampment’s members have formed an organization group, dubbed the “Camp Council,” that is serving as liaison between city officials and those sleeping behind the Gateway Plaza. Several local activists pointed to that development as a sign of progress locally.
Back in March 2016, former Santa Cruz City Councilman Don Lane addressed mounting advocates’ pressure by proposing the city update its ordinances to decriminalize outdoor sleeping, a move voted down by the majority of his peers. The council did, however, opt to take a more holistic view of the issue and agreed a month later to form a homelessness coordinating committee that ultimately produced a 20-point needs assessment and strategy, a direct forebear to the first city-run homeless camp at 1220 River St.
PAVING THE PATH
Still heavily involved, among Santa Cruz long-time civil rights agitators is Robert Norse, recognizable at many Santa Cruz City Council meetings and public protests as the long gray-bearded bathrobe-wearing man wearing carrying a stuffed-animal toy. The 71-year-old, who is not homeless himself, splits his time living in Santa Cruz and Felton and has spent countless hours requesting public records related to government activity and homelessness. Norse has operated a twice weekly independent Free Radio show since 1995 and leads the group Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom.
During a recent interview, Norse said he arrived in Santa Cruz in 1977, but did not become deeply entrenched in the city’s politics until 1988. An overarching project for him has been to chip away at the city’s ban on overnight public space camping, enacted in 1979, but underlying all his efforts is a respect for basic civil rights, he said.
“I’ve always been passionate about civil liberties for poor people and I’ve been poor and homeless myself, briefly,” Norse said. “I tend to identify with those groups, those folks, and I don’t like seeing how they’re treated and it pisses me off.”
“I tend to talk about issues that I think most people will avoid because they don’t want to offend powerful, people in power,” Norse later added. “And that is important for folks to do. It’s whistleblowing of a certain kind, I guess, and I think that’s helpful, because ultimately it may produce changes.”
Norse said, after decades of work, he has seen some movement away from the city’s sleeping ban — primarily due to legal restraints imposed on law enforcement agencies due to a federal court decision declaring sleeping as a basic civil right. Norse said the “huge increase” in the local homeless population also is challenging the city’s long history of “hide-out or get out policy, which is not only cruel but it’s futile.”
Norse said he sees success in uncovering hidden issues and getting public figures to commit to doing what he sees as the right things.
“I don’t think I’m getting to what I want, but it’s not the getting to what you want that counts, so much as creating the path that might eventually lead, somewhere down the road, to someone else later getting to that goal, which is decriminalization of homeless people, treating people like human beings regardless of what their economic status is, ending the selective enforcement that is routine in Santa Cruz day after day, where people can get driven out into the rain by shop owners or just by police who have been told by the shop owners that they don’t want a person under their awning when they have done nothing wrong other than standing there, which has happened recently and continues to happen,” Norse said.
FEEDING THE PEOPLE
Santa Cruzan Keith McHenry, 61, is the leader of the local Santa Cruz Food Not Bombs chapter and co-founder of the original Boston-based group. His path to organizing around homelessness issues grew from political opposition to moving federal funding away from human services and into military defense in the 1980s. Later settling in Santa Cruz, McHenry’s homelessness issues activism grew along with the population’s increase, he said.
“It’s important to me, one, because I’m close friends with so many of the people who live on the streets,” McHenry said. “It just hurts me to see the problems they go through and I’ve spent a lot of my time in Santa Cruz helping them to resolve just things like quick-storing their stuff while they go to the emergency room.”
Citing the “Freedom Sleepers” protest as a catalyst, McHenry said he has seen more progress along homelessness issues in Santa Cruz than in many of the other cities where Food Not Bombs groups are located. The protest, which he helped coordinate, led to a secondary protest around the downtown post office, then a large homeless encampment at the San Lorenzo Park benchlands, which the city moved to its River Street Camp for most of last year. Most recently, the growing homeless “Ross Camp” encampment adjacent to the Gateway Plaza has “inspired a lot of hatred,” but also earned the city national attention when some of its campers pulled crash victims out of their vehicles last year at a large Highway 1 at River Street multi-car pileup.
“I am hearing a lot more people kind of disgusted at the hatred toward the homeless,” McHenry said. “I think I see that as the most important single thing, is to have a human face of people living on the streets. Sadly, a lot of it is just the conditions. So many more residents of Santa Cruz are on the edge because of increasing rents and so on. That’s why they’re becoming more sympathetic, because they have family members now living on the streets.”
Brent Adams, who runs the nonprofit mostly volunteer-powered Warming Center Program for emergency overnight shelter, and the Day and Night Storage Program, said it took his involvement in the 2011 Occupy Santa Cruz movement to realize the he could help make a difference.
While Adams, 53, said he experiences burn-out every other day, he hopes to continue working to “transform the experience of homelessness in California” for the coming 20 years. Adams said he has not yet achieved his initial goal, to see formation of an organized transitional homeless encampment where people can build community and begin to heal.
“I get burned out every other day,” said Adams, who is living in a recreational vehicle in Santa Cruz to cut down on living costs. “If you’re at the storage program or the Warming Center, you’re interacting with people that it makes sense over and over, and then you get refreshed. Super empowering.”
Rabbi Philip Posner, 80, is a relative newcomer to Santa Cruz but whose activism includes a 39-day jail sentence in 1961 for his involvement with the Freedom Riders, who were trying to desegregate transportation facilities in the South.
“My end goal is to alleviate homeless suffering as much as we can. That’s the goal, to alleviate the suffering of fellow human beings,” said Posner, who moved to Santa Cruz full-time in 2015.
Posner, who said he has a doctorate in empathy, cofounded the group Conscience & Action, which meets weekly downtown before and in conjunction with Norse’s Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom group. Posner said Norse sees him as naive and he sees Norse as cynical, but the two are able to set aside their differences.
“We work together,” Posner said of he and Norse. “I think that’s a really great story, because one of the things we see in society is the total polarization, people not talking to each other, etc.”
About this series
During the month of April, Santa Cruz Sentinel takes a closer look at homeless impacts to the community.