The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday unanimously approved two ordinances that will outlaw homeless encampments along the American River Parkway, near schools, libraries and other areas deemed “critical infrastructure.”
The laws are expected to go into effect in 30 days and apply to the county’s unincorporated areas.
On paper, they mark one of the county’s most aggressive steps toward curtailing homeless camps, which comes as the region’s unhoused population has soared 67 percent over the past three years to nearly 9,300.
But Lisa Travis, the county’s lead attorney, cautioned that the enforcement of the new laws is dependent on the limited resources within the county’s parks, sheriffs and social services departments.
Also, the county must offer available shelter or housing to people residing in the camps before they can move them.
“We’re not going to suddenly start sweeping everyone,” Supervisor Rich Desmond said at the hearing, which included several hours of public comment for and against the bans. “We are inherently limited in how we can do that morally and legally until we have more capacity.”
Supervisors said the ordinances were needed because homeless encampments are a danger to the people residing in them and the greater community. They said the county should focus its resources on camps that are a clear and present danger.
Advocates who work with unhoused residents said the laws will continue to disenfranchise people without permanent homes and won’t help solve the homelessness crisis. The ordinances do not require the county to increase shelter or housing and will simply shuffle people around, they said.
“When they are moved, where do they go?” Crystal Sanchez, president of the Sacramento Homeless Union asked the board. “Again, I’m going to ask: Where do they go?”
A 2018 federal court ruling known as Martin v. Boise prevents the quick clearing of camps. Under that ruling, agencies must offer shelter to people sleeping outside before they can issue citations or make arrests.
The new county laws must be carried out “in accordance with state and federal law,” Travis said, when asked about the Boise ruling.
Along with the offer of available shelter or housing, camp residents must also be given time to consider whether to accept those options, said Liz Bellas, director of the county’s regional parks department.
Leonard Orman, the county’s chief park ranger, told CapRadio earlier this year that the county's legal authority is limited and the removal of camps is painstakingly slow.
Also limited is the county’s homeless shelter capacity. Currently, the county funds about 1,300 shelter beds, but they are typically full on any given night. 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 law in the future.
Violators of the laws would first receive verbal and written warnings, and could be subject to a misdemeanor, according to the county.
Along with the parkway ban, supervisors agreed to outlaw homeless camps within 25 feet of schools, libraries and areas the board deems “critical infrastructure,” such as levees, rail stations and water treatment plants. In addition, the ordinance bans camps within 30 feet of wildfire and flood risk areas during severe weather and outside overnight homeless shelters.
At the hearing, several environmentalists said the ban could help restore Sacramento’s waterways. They showed pictures of the American River Parkway choked with trash and debris, much of which they said comes from homeless camps.
“We’re against all trash in the river, we don’t care where it comes from,” added Allison Gobel, a parkway advocate.
The new ban applies to both the American River and Dry Creek parkways.
Last year, volunteers removed approximately 1,300 tons of trash from the county parks system, including the parkways, according to a staff report.
Supervisors cited the risk of wildfire along the American River Parkway as a major reason for passing the parkway ban. There were approximately 170 fires within the county’s parks system last year, the majority of which were in the American River Parkway, according to a staff report. Of those fires, more than 50 were believed to be arson, with the majority being started by homeless individuals, the report said.
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.
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