Sacramento County this summer could join the growing ranks of local governments across California taking a more aggressive approach to removing homeless encampments.
As early as July, the Board of Supervisors is set to vote on an ordinance that would ban camping near areas the county deems “critical infrastructure,” such as levees, police and fire stations, jails, hospitals and courthouses. Camping in areas at risk of wildfire or floods would also be off-limits, as would locations outside overnight homeless shelters.
The final ordinance could be even more expansive. Supervisor Rich Desmond suggested at a workshop last week that it should outlaw unhoused people from camping near schools, libraries and parks, though he acknowledged it’s not clear the county can legally do that.
“We have to take back our public spaces to the degree that we can,” added Supervisor Patrick Kennedy, who was reelected this month to the board’s District 2 seat. “That doesn’t mean criminalizing. That doesn’t mean not being sensitive to [unhoused people’s] needs. It’s just that there’s still rules to be followed.”
County staff plan to craft a formal version of the ordinance but noted they may not have the resources needed to enforce it.
Some advocates for unhoused people say the measure would criminalize homelessness regardless of intent. The ordinance calls for handing out warnings, then fines and misdemeanors to those who repeatedly refuse to move from designated areas.
The punishments could lead to a criminal record, making it more difficult for homeless residents to find housing, said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness.
“It’s counterproductive,” Erlenbusch said. “They did not pay one bit of attention to me or other advocates who said you don’t need to criminalize people experiencing homelessness.”
The board asked county staff to develop the ordinance because homeless encampments “pose a significant risk of harm” to both the people residing in them and the greater community, according to a county staff report. Additionally, the camps present a threat to public infrastructure and the county’s operations and maintenance activities, the report said.
County’s proposal would be a limited ban on camping
In April, the Sacramento City Council placed a measure on the November ballot that — if approved by voters — would make public camping illegal, though only if a person rejects the offer of an available emergency shelter space.
Sacramento’s roughly 1,100 shelter spaces are typically full and far short of what’s needed for the city’s homeless residents. The measure would force the city to approve and build thousands of homeless shelter spaces.
Unlike the city measure, the county ordinance would not ban camping on all public property. Nor would it require the county to build more shelter, according to its early framework.
For those reasons, Daniel Conway, who led a campaign for a more aggressive citywide anti-camping measure, said the Board of Supervisors should place a voter initiative on the November ballot outlawing camping on public property countywide. Such a measure would prevent future supervisors from voiding the policy.
“It’s not a permanent enough change,” Conway, who served as chief-of-staff to former Mayor Kevin Johnson, said of the county proposal. “An anti-camping ordinance needs to be part of a comprehensive approach to homelessness.”
Supervisor Kennedy said in February he would consider bringing a countywide initiative to the board to place on the November ballot. He still might do so, his chief-of-staff Keaton Riley said in an email.
Kennedy is waiting to see the final version of the county encampment ordinance, which supervisors are expected to consider for approval on July 12.
“If he feels that is not strong enough, he will be looking at a separate ordinance or a ballot measure,” Riley wrote.
Local governments turn to encampment bans
Homeless encampments have grown more common on California’s sidewalks, along freeways and riverbanks in recent years, presenting a stark reminder of the state’s homelessness crisis and placing pressure on politicians to find solutions. Some are turning to bans.
The Elk Grove City Council voted unanimously in early June to outlaw encampments near schools and playgrounds and other youth centers. In January, Los Angeles banned encampments from sidewalks and driveways, freeway overpasses, near libraries, parks and schools. But a lack of outreach workers and interim housing options in that city have slowed enforcement, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The reasons homeless camps have grown are many, say those who work with unhoused residents. The state’s exorbitant housing costs continue to push people out of their homes and apartments. Communities, meanwhile, aren’t building affordable housing and shelter quickly enough to keep up.
There are also reasons the camps remain. Local governments at the start of the pandemic stopped conducting encampment sweeps, following guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC said clearing them “can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”
Sweeps have resumed in some communities. But the legal authority to clear camps is still limited by a 2018 federal court ruling known as Martin v. Boise. It prevents public agencies from punishing people for sleeping outside on public property, unless the agency can offer shelter as an alternative.
Most shelters in the Sacramento region are at capacity on any given night, a fact that must change for the county to enforce any new encampment ordinance.
Janna Haynes, a county spokesperson, said the new ordinance “will comply with all local and federal laws, including those requiring offers of shelter before any camps can be moved, per the Martin v. Boise decision.” She said the county’s current policy already calls for the offer of shelter before any camps are moved.
County officials say their efforts to open more shelter spaces — including a recent approval of 100 tiny homes in South Sacramento for unhoused residents — will allow them to carry out the future law.
But given the often powerful pushback of community groups, Conway, the former political staffer, says political leaders must do more to convince the public of the need for housing and shelter.
“We have to build our way out of this homelessness crisis,” he said.
County supervisors said they want to enforce the removal of encampments not only in neighborhood settings, but also along the American River Parkway. They asked county staff to create a similar anti-camping ordinance on that 23-mile natural corridor.
County officials estimate there are up to 1,000 people living in encampments on regional park properties across Sacramento County, with a large share of those along the parkway.
Contact CapRadio reporter Chris Nichols at [email protected]
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