Fighting Sacramento’s criminalization of homelessness

California Homeless Youth Project Executive Director Shahera Hyatt speaks against the criminalization of homelessness at the Sacramento City Council meeting on Aug. 22, 2017.

In 2015, California Homeless Youth Project Executive Director Shahera Hyatt published a booklet on the criminalization of homelessness and its impact on young people in California. It was about 10 pages long, but she says it could’ve easily been just one sentence:

Business associations pay politicians to get cops to put homeless people in jail.

“How well is this strategy working out for us?” Hyatt deadpanned to the Sacramento City Council Tuesday night.

Not well at all, it seems. Yet for some reason the city and Sacramento County Board of Supervisors keep working to criminalize our homeless community for trying to carry out life-sustaining tasks like sleeping and going to the bathroom. Soon, they may not be able to ask for help.

City council is considering laws that would criminalize what they call “aggressive panhandling,” and allow cops to cite and remove “uncooperative individuals” from public parks and recreational facilities. They want to board up deep alcoves in empty buildings (lest our homeless neighbors use them for shelter) and make it illegal to protest on Sacramento City Hall property after 7 p.m. without a permit.

That last one may not look like it relates to homelessness, but it’s a direct response to the Right to Rest protest in December 2015, when unsheltered residents tired of being hassled and cited for anti-camping violations decided they’d had enough and started sleeping outside City Hall.

Speaking of the right to rest, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, led by Phil Serna, wants to spend up to $5 million to beef up their park ranger staff and intensify pressure on homeless residents who sleep on the American River Parkway. More citations for homeless campers means fewer campers on the parkway, the logic goes.

Except that’s not the reality.

In the first seven months of 2017, Sacramento County Park Rangers have increased anti-camping enforcement by 133 percent since last year (730 citations this year, compared to 313 in 2016). Yet no one would tell you the parkway is any less utilized by homeless campers this year than last.

The trouble with the city and county chasing our unsheltered neighbors around is that homeless folks have nowhere else to go.

Our county has just 700 year-round emergency shelter beds (which are regularly at capacity), while January’s homeless count found over 2,000 unsheltered people in the region. That number is likely much higher. The region’s affordable housing crisis, meanwhile, makes it nearly impossible for homeless folks to find longterm housing.

As I pointed out in a Sacramento Bee op-ed last January, those unsheltered residents are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

If city and county officials want to tell homeless folks where they can’t sleep, they must be able to tell them where they can. In fact, the Constitution is on the homeless community’s side.

On Tuesday a judge in Houston put a temporary hold against the city’s cops from enforcing the new anti-camping ordinance, on the grounds that they had nowhere else to sleep due to shelters being full.

“The evidence is conclusive that [homeless residents] are involuntarily in public, harmlessly attempting to shelter themselves—an act they cannot realistically forgo, and that is integral to their status as unsheltered homeless individuals,” reads the statement from U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt.

“Enforcement of the City’s ban against the plaintiffs may, therefore, cause them irreparable harm by violating their Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment due to their status of ‘homelessness.'”

I reached out to Supervisor Serna’s office this week to express my concerns over his attempt to further crack down on homeless campers. Chief of Staff Lisa Nava told me in an email that Serna’s intent isn’t to just roust the homeless. “We are looking at this as an opportunity to connect people (to services),” she told me.

I responded that, even with the county’s approved new 75 shelter beds scheduled to open on an undetermined date, there are nowhere near enough options for the county’s thousands of unsheltered residents.

“Agreed….it’s only a start,” she wrote back.

According to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, who are representing the homeless community in Houston, 75 percent of U.S. cases challenging laws restricting camping, sleeping in public and homeless camp evictions have been successful since 2014.

This is why I am contacting the NLCHP, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (whose sister organization in Texas is also on the Houston case) to see what can be done here in Sacramento, where the numbers surrounding our shelter beds and homeless population are stark.

The anti-camping conversation is nothing new in California. In 2006, the ACLU won the Los Angeles homeless community’s right to rest against the city.

Over a decade before that, now-Mayor Darrell Steinberg was the lone councilmember in Sacramento City Hall fighting against the very anti-camping ordinance his police enforce today. What could possibly have changed his opinion?

I bet Shahera Hyatt has an idea.

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Dave Kempa
Dave Kempa is the founder and editor of VOICES: River City.