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Somebody's Got to Do It

Strange but true--11 civic-minded women and men have put their money where their mouths are to run for four vacant Santa Cruz City Council seats

By Kelly Luker

IT'S A THANKLESS, Herculean task managing this sprawling outpatient clinic we know and love as Santa Cruz. Rather than bitch, 11 brave souls are willing to dive into the City Council fray and try to make a difference. The pay is lousy--$500 a month ($1,000 for the mayor)--the hours long and the chances of being ridiculed by people like us above average. But enough of the good news--it's time to scrutinize what's at stake.

There is nothing affecting the health of downtown more right now than ... well, we don't even know what to call it. Labeling it the "homeless problem" is insulting to those made homeless by circumstance and making an honest effort to become otherwise. Calling it the "bum problem" raises the hackles of candidates like Eleanor Eisenberg, who finds it "a really derogatory term." She adds, "There may be some bums down there, but I think most of them don't have alternatives." Candidate Kristin Anderson refers to it as "the bad vibes on the mall."

Admittedly, there is no one simplistic label for the collection of Jerry's Kids, vagrants, dope dealers, punks, drunks and--yes--bums. But shopkeepers like Julie Hendee of Cat 'n Canary don't care anymore about labels. Hendee, who has watched sales revenues plunge as "the problem" escalates, merely wants to staunch the hemorrhage of business.

Breathless hyperbole from the Downtown Association notwithstanding, the truth is that many people are taking their business elsewhere rather than run the gauntlet of spare changers and mentally ill staked up and down Pacific Avenue. While it is more fashionable to hurl themselves in a self-righteous tizzy gainst Super Crown moving in, city councilmembers may want to start thinking about who and what will be moving out, unless they start coming up with real solutions.

Oh, there'll be other tasty morsels on the newly elected gang's table--nailing down the greenbelt once and for all, what to do about Terrace Point and, of course, rolling out the welcome mat for all those lovely chain stores eager to set up shop on River Street.

First, there are the three incumbents--Mike Rotkin, Katherine Beiers and Cynthia Mathews. Rotkin--our socialist-leaning, Marxist-lecturing, draft card-burning, folksong-singin' mayor--now finds himself the newly designated "fascist pig" by City Hall protesters. If it were a movie, no one would believe it. His Honor got that title by taking a stand against the folks who used the City Hall grounds as a toilet. He weighs in with the "strict enforcement" of existing ordinances.

Yet Beiers, when asked about downtown woes, responds, "Downtown is booming. Business and profits continue to rise." A solution will be at hand, Beiers believes, "when developers and banks get off the dime and actually build on the empty parcels--the street people will filter out." She adds, "Stop looking for convenient scapegoats, and stop giving our downtown a bad reputation it does not deserve."

Mathews supports an "active partnership with downtown businesses, enforcement of our current ordinances and an aggressive effort to complete the building of downtown."

Challenging Concepts

THEN THERE'S THE FRESH crop of hopefuls, whose solutions to the downtown problems fall in roughly three categories. Community activist Kristin Anderson, attorney Eleanor Eisenberg and local Green Party leader David Silva favor looking for solutions to the social ills that they believe are the root to the problems downtown.

Says Anderson, "We don't have shelter for underage people. The key to improving the situation is to get the Above the Line program [youth homeless shelter] running. We have this university here [so we should use those resources to] find out why people have nothing more interesting to do with their lives." But the downtown situation is not the biggest problem as far as she's concerned. "The biggest is we haven't come to terms with urbanization."

One-time county administrative office analyst and former Legal Aid director Eisenberg believes that, "The first step is to find out who is there and then fashion some long-term solution. Community policing is appropriate for assaultive behavior, but the most productive approach is to help people turn their lives around."

Silva, who has won the endorsement of SCAN and SEIU, says, "The answer to everything is cooperation and empowerment. Most of the business owners are retired hippies, so they should know what different lifestyles are like." He suggests that business owners "come out with a cup of coffee and visit with [street people], and encourage them to police themselves."

Plumber Michael Hernandez and Dennis Johnston, the downtown social outreach worker, support enforcing existing ordinances. Hernandez, who has gained widespread support from both progressive and conservative groups, wants a stronger police presence downtown. He is also concerned by the "revolving door--where we have the same people arrested two or three times a day." He supports the idea of a campground for the homeless, but "we need a camping ban. I don't want this to become Open Air Hotel Santa Cruz."

In his line of work, Johnston knows the lay of the mall and the identities of its denizens as well as anyone. "The biggest misconception is that they're all homeless," Johnston explains, an observation also echoed by Rotkin. Johnston also supports the camping ban. "If people are willing to be responsible for the behaviors, I might consider [allowing camping]. But when I see people wiping feces on the bathroom walls [downtown]--if you can't take care of what's there, how can I give you more?"

The third school of thought--to tighten the screws--includes Realtor Chad Waters and Jane Walton, a substitute teacher, photographer and former prosecuting attorney who has volunteered with the Peace Corps, KUSP and Adult Ed. In addition to enforcing the existing laws, Walton also believes that "it may be time to look again at a sidewalk sitting ordinance patterned like Seattle's." She adds, "I'd like to see spare change boxes installed [which] makes the public aware that we do not condone panhandling in Santa Cruz. The food programs using the sidewalk as a soup kitchen must move elsewhere. The consequences for infractions must be tightened up so that they are appropriate, certain and immediate."

Waters, whose ERA realty office is on the corner of River and Water streets, also wants to see the City Council enact a sidewalk-obstruction ordinance and see the homeless feeding programs removed from the mall. "We almost encourage homelessness in this town," Waters says. "Our programs encourage dependency, and there's not much focus on rehabilitation."

Then there's Rodent, the candidate who is a category unto himself. Particularly inspiring are his vow to legalize toy-poodle hunting and his encouragement of neighborhood barbecues. Some of his most fervent supporters, we hear, are interested in combining the two. Alas, the Ratman's phone has been disconnected, so we could not poll him on solutions to the problems downtown.

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From the October 31-November 6, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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