Support Independent Journalism. Donate today!

Santa Cruz County Grand Jury Homelessness Report Calls for Defunding of Police

A June report from the county’s independent judicial arm urges local government to reallocate law enforcement resources to social services.

Santa Cruz Police.Photo from Santa Cruz Police/Facebook.

On July 13, about 10 police officers participated in the arrest of a member of the Santa Cruz, California, homeless community. Marty Mirabel, known as Pirate, was protecting his friend’s vehicular home from being towed in a public lot, according to his bail fundraiser

Four officers subdued and handcuffed him on the ground, and five others formed a protective semi-circle as they repeatedly told the videographer, local activist Keith McHenry, to back away from the scene. Onlookers shouted “Fuck 12”—a slang term for police and law enforcement—and “Freedom!” over the racket from the tow truck. Pirate was charged with obstructing an officer, writing a bad check, and resisting arrest, according to a public arrest report. He was released on a $25,000 bond on July 19.

On July 17, Santa Cruz residents rallied for Pirate’s freedom and for defunding the city’s police, in line with protest movements across the country following the police killing of George Floyd in May in Minneapolis. Days later, roughly 30 protesters gathered outside City Councilmember Cynthia Mathews’s house and downtown near Police Chief Andrew Mills’s home. McHenry told The Appeal that activists gathered at Mathews’s house “for supporting the confiscation of vehicle homes of people, forcing them to seek shelter in doorways and parks.” Mathews did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This will continue until services for the unhoused community are available, and criminalization of our struggling community members stops,” Alicia Kuhl, president of Santa Cruz Chapter of the California Homeless Union, wrote on July 21 on Facebook in response to the demonstration. “That includes the towing of peoples homes. They towed away 3 that we know of last week.” She added, “If we don’t get some peace, you won’t either.” 

Their protests follow not only the arrest of Pirate but also multiple raids of homeless encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic. In one video, a resident of a sidewalk camp said police handcuffed her and other residents, drove them away from their newly purchased belongings and dropped them off in a parking lot. They walked back to their camp, but police had cleared it. 

Santa Cruz police continue to arrest people in the homeless community, which numbered over 2,000, according to a 2019 Point In Time survey. In June, the Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury, an independent body that publishes investigative findings and recommendations to improve governmental operations, published a report criticizing the county’s strategy of criminalizing mental health issues, substance use disorders, and homelessness. 

The grand jury recommends allocating resources away from arresting homeless people and toward social work, mental health services, and housing. It also proposes a 24-hour response unit for non-emergency calls staffed with medical and experienced crisis workers that would function similarly to the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) in Springfield and Eugene, Oregon. 

CAHOOTS, a project born out of the White Bird Clinic—a grassroots, sliding scale, social justice-oriented community health center—responds to about 20 percent of local 911 calls free of charge and offers an independent crisis hotline. Medics and crisis workers provide crisis counseling, suicide prevention, substance use services, conflict resolution, housing crisis services, resource connection and referrals, first aid, and transportation to services. According to the grand jury report, CAHOOTS saves the county an estimated $15 million a year through emergency response diversion and picking up calls otherwise handled by more expensive law enforcement and EMS teams. Portland, Oregon, and Denver are in the early stages of similar pilot programs.

Civil grand juries, however, do not have the power to implement policy or programs. Their power “rests in their ability to move the public to insist that the agencies act on the issues revealed by the investigations,” according to the county. 

Although the Santa Cruz City Council must respond to the report’s recommendations, anecdotal evidence from former grand jurors across the country suggest the majority of these recommendations are often ignored. For example, the Santa Cruz grand jury has expressed concerns surrounding overcrowding at the Main Jail in every report since 2000.  

In June, the City Council applied for a $3.4 million grant from the state for emergency housing, navigation centers, rental assistance, and housing projects. But, as the grand jury noted, the Homeless Action Partnership, responsible for reducing homelessness in the county, is not “organizationally equipped” to fulfill its mission.

Santa Cruz officials and police claim to have helped the homeless population with services such as “triage centers” and no-tow “safe spaces” for vehicular homes. But locals say that’s not playing out in reality. 

For one, people who live in their cars cannot afford registration, which results in the towing of their vehicle, they said. Police towed a Santa Cruz Homeless Union donation van on July 15 because the organization hadn’t yet completed the registration process, according to Kuhl. And in early April, local foster youth advocate Chad Platt told The Appeal that the city was misrepresenting facts about triage centers. “To say that there are triage centers located all around Santa Cruz County is such a lie. There’s nothing set up,” he said.   

In mid-March, Governor Gavin Newsom announced the launch of Project Roomkey, a statewide initiative in response to COVID-19 to put a small percentage of people without homes into hotels and motels. Santa Cruz county set up at least one crowded, patrolled outdoor tent city and tents inside the Veterans Memorial Building. Following calls for motel vouchers from advocates, the city reported that it had contracted with three hotels with 117 rooms through Project Roomkey in early May. 

On July 1, as the pandemic continued, Newsom signed an executive order extending statewide eviction moratoriums to Sept. 30. But McHenry, the activist, said some landlords in Santa Cruz are not abiding by the law. I feed the evicted and can tell you the crisis is already extreme even under the city and states temporary eviction moratoriums,” McHenry wrote in a statement on Facebook.

“I don’t believe one landlord has been prosecuted for violating this moratorium even though I meet freshly evicted tenants at our meals several times a week,” he continued.

Some cities, like Los Angeles and Dallas, are offering tenants some form of rent relief. But many lower-income and marginalized people in the U.S. are living in uncertainty: In some states, more than half of renters are at risk of eviction. At the federal level, the Senate’s latest proposed relief package, the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools (HEALS) Act doesn’t extend the federal eviction moratorium. Housing and public health advocates fear that a collision of insurmountable crises is just around the corner.