Op-Ed: Santa Cruz is a model for Berkeley civil sidewalks

In the early 1990s, Pacific Avenue merchants were suffering in Santa Cruz. We had encampments of youth sitting on our sidewalks in front of businesses and in our public spaces, often with pit bulls and belongings. They engaged in unwelcoming aggressive panhandling and rowdy behavior, frequently fueled by drugs and alcohol. Many Santa Cruzans—particularly seniors and parents with children—felt uncomfortable in our Downtown, and so they stayed away, or would make their visits short, because they did not want to have to walk the gauntlet of groups sitting on sidewalks. Tax revenue, tourism, and the public areas suffered accordingly. It was time for a change.

After careful investigation of then recently passed civil sidewalks ordinances in Seattle and Santa Monica, I proposed a similar ordinance to the City Council in Santa Cruz that prohibited sitting and lying on our sidewalks in commercial districts during business hours. At first there was a maelstrom of protest, similar to what recently happened in Berkeley. “Mike, how could you propose something like this as long standing progressive in our community?!” But the current situation was not working. And we were not doing these youth any favors with our “anything-goes” street environment. They were gravitating to very unhealthy behaviors living on our streets. I told them it was time for a new model that has shown success in other communities—that being a progressive was about embracing positive change and not getting stuck in the past with old rhetoric and situations that were not serving our community.

Our City Council eventually supported me, and our Civil Sidewalks ordinance went into effect in 1994.

So how has the program worked in Santa Cruz? While it has not solved all of our challenges, Pacific Avenue, which is where we faced the most problems, saw almost immediate improvement with respect to the behavior and numbers of homeless youth on our street. Our City Hosts and city team did outreach by letting people know about the upcoming ordinance, and the availability of social services.  There was an almost immediate change in behavior; those who previously sat on the street moved to benches and designated sitting areas, availed themselves of social services, or moved out of the district. Others returned home or moved on to other cities, including Berkeley. We did not reduce the overall number of the homeless, but we did change the anti-social behavior in which some of them were engaged. We were surprised by how many homeless people thanked us, because they now felt safer from the more aggressive elements of the street population.

I was most pleased to see how the program worked well when coupled with our Host program.  Most of the education and interaction with the street population is done by our Hosts, who are funded by the Downtown merchants and property owners. Police only get involved in rare difficult cases, where folks do not heed the advice of the Hosts. Having Hosts do first level of support makes the situation less adversarial, helps direct folks into services, and leverages police only where their skills are needed.  The net result is a dramatic reduction in problematic behaviors with few citations ever issued in the process. We still have conflicts, but far less serious and less frequently.

Pacific Avenue is now a vibrant commercial district, where resident and visitors enjoy a varied selection of shopping, dining, and entertainment venues, as well as the public spaces of sidewalks, benches, and café seating. Business tax receipts bear witness to the success of the turnaround.  Merchants are thriving and tax revenues help fund our social service and other city programs. And Santa Cruz has maintained its soul.  It is still the funky, tolerant, socially progressive town it was before, but now just a bit more welcoming with mutual respect for everyone.

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Mike Rotkin served six terms on Santa Cruz City Council, and was appointed five times by his colleagues as Mayor from 1981-82, 1985-86, 1995-96, 2004-5, and 2009-10. Dr. Rotkin also taught Community Studies at UC Santa Cruz for over 40 years and serves as president of the UCSC lecturers and librarians' union.