The effort to move the homeless from the soon-to-be-developed Richards Boulevard area has activists complaining that police are serving the city’s economic agenda
Sacramento city police officer Mark Zoulas seemed a little disappointed as he guided the department’s Ford Expedition onto the American River levee, just north of downtown Sacramento. Every day, he and his partner, officer Frank Ubois, arrive at 5:30 a.m. to roust homeless people illegally camping on the riverbank. But the day was getting off to a slow start.
There were no camps. An abandoned blanket, a few beer cans and even the orange plastic cap off a hypodermic needle could be spotted in the bushes along the levee, but actual campers were nowhere to be found. By now, it seems, they know better than to linger on their bedrolls past dawn. And this is perhaps proof of just how well Zoulas and Ubois have done their job along this southern stretch of the American River Parkway.
“This is our side of the river. And we keep on top of it,” said Zoulas, a big, affable man with a buzz cut.
“We feel like, from the Sacramento River to Cal Expo, people should be able to bring their kids down and have a picnic and not worry and not feel threatened.”
He’s sure some people still camp on his side, but many of the homeless know that the south side of the river is no longer safe for camping and that being caught could mean being ticketed, having their belongings confiscated and destroyed, or even spending time in jail. Those who do stay overnight are careful not to get caught.
“We’re big believers in the right to sleep,” Zoulas explained. And although sleeping on city property is illegal, the officers have wide discretion in whether to make arrests, issue citations or give warnings. Those who make the effort to remain invisible, it seems, often are tolerated. “People need sleep, you know? What we want to prevent are the big, messy permanent camps. If someone says, ‘I am going to sleep on the banks of this river,’ I don’t have a problem with that. As long as you roll up your bedroll by 5:30.”
But when Zoulas joined the Problem Oriented Policing (POP) team two years ago, this turf wasn’t nearly so tidy. The POP team was created with grant money from the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency (SHRA) to clean up the area surrounding Richards Boulevard, a patch of land just north of downtown with tremendous development potential. But for decades, the redevelopment area has been the refuge of an ever-growing homeless population and has been home to most of the social services used by Sacramento’s poorest citizens.
Like all POP teams, the Richards Boulevard crew is assigned to tackle the problems in a specific geographic area. For Zoulas and Ubois, the workload mostly revolves around the petty crimes and inevitable conflicts that involve the indigent. The team busts campers, tells people to move on when they are somewhere they shouldn’t be, and deals with public drunks and, at times, the mentally ill. The two also hand out hundreds of vouchers for Greyhound bus tickets out of town.
The SHRA used redevelopment money to contract with the police department for the additional officers. In doing so, the redevelopment agency essentially “bought” the two positions, a fact of which Zoulas and Ubois are quite aware. Although they are city employees, who ultimately answer to their superiors in the police department, they get constant input from the business owners and service providers in the area.
The city’s official position is that the police only roust campers in response to complaints, usually from property or business owners. But it is clear that Zoulas and Ubois are much more entrepreneurial about their jobs. They’re constantly on the move, patrolling, making contacts and looking for trouble. “We want to serve the grant. If we see a problem, we take care of it,” said Zoulas.
In the past two years, the Richards Boulevard POP team, other city police officers, county park rangers and Sacramento’s city attorney have carried out a dramatic crackdown on illegal camping as well as other city ordinances, such as loitering, drinking in public and jaywalking, that homeless people often violate.
Supporters of the crackdown say the city was in a state of “misdemeanor anarchy” until two years ago—with rampant petty crimes scaring people away from downtown and hurting the local economy. The increased enforcement also is aimed at steering the homeless population into drug and alcohol programs, mental-health programs and shelters.
“What we have seen is that a good amount of that population is now funneled to where they should be,” said Dave Topaz, president of the Sacramento City Police Officers Association, the city’s police union. Topaz and Zoulas both complained that the district attorney’s office dismissed cases too often, a source of constant frustration for police. More aggressive prosecution by the city attorney also has meant heavier penalties, including jail time for repeat offenders. “On those cases where we want to see the maximums, it’s now getting done,” said Topaz.
But critics say the city policies are part of a concerted campaign to harass and criminalize the homeless. “They want to make downtown as inhospitable to the homeless as possible,” said Tommy Clinkenbeard, a Sacramento public defender and longtime advocate for the rights of homeless people.
Clinkenbeard and others believe that business interests and city leaders see the homeless as an obstacle to the redevelopment and revitalization of downtown. He said the crackdown is driven by the city’s economic agenda and is intended to drive the poor away from the central city. “They see the homeless as blight—human blight. If they can remove the eyesore, remove the homeless, they think they can make more money,” he said.
Clinkenbeard is just one attorney fighting the anti-camping ordinance in court. Homeless activists insist that camping is a legitimate need for many poor people; they’re demanding that the city allow a legally sanctioned campground, or tent city. But city officials have steadfastly refused. Camping is against city code, so the clampdown will continue.
Although he has been on the POP team for only two years, Zoulas has been busting campers on the American River for much longer. For a while, he said, he believed that some space ought to be set aside for the homeless to camp in peace. That belief changed, he said, “when I saw what I’m about to show you.”
On the north side of the river, tucked into the woods near Highway 160, was a rambling camp that had been there months, possibly years, judging by the volume of debris and assorted junk that had accreted there.
Zoulas and Ubois drew their pepper spray as they entered the camp. “This is your basic tent city,” Zoulas said, drawing his baton with the other hand. At the center of the camp was a towering jumble of blue plastic tarps and plywood, a house that could have been designed by Dr. Seuss. Around the ramshackle structure were a handful of small tents, nested in the bushes. Some of these were surrounded by empty cans of Natural Ice—“the camper’s beer,” Zoulas explained.
Here and there were dozens of piles of trash and scavenged objects, including an incredible number of bicycle parts.
“Anybody home?” Zoulas called, approaching one tent and knocking softly on the side with his baton. “Hello?”
“Go away,” came a voice from inside the tent. But Zoulas insisted. “Can you come out please? We just want to talk to you for a minute.”
The man, in his late 40s, with a closely cropped head of gray hair, crawled out of the tent, bringing with him a family-sized bag of Midnight Special tobacco, from which he immediately pinched a clump for a hand-rolled smoke.
He went by the name of Renegade, and, like many of those who live on the riverbanks, he wouldn’t give his real name because camping inside city limits is illegal. He said he had only been at the campsite a few days and that other campers there gave him a tent even though he didn’t know them very well. He quickly took issue with the term “camping,” however. “Camping is when you grab the kids and the Coleman and go into the wilderness for some fun. This isn’t fun. But it is my home right now.”
After a few minutes, the unofficial camp host, a heavily tattooed man with a goatee, ponytail and baseball cap who went by the name Ironhead (“because I’m so hardheaded”), emerged from the big house.
Ironhead had been homeless for almost nine years, yet he had never stayed in a shelter. “It reminds me of jail,” he said. “I like it better out here. It’s more peaceful. Nobody bothers you.”
The meeting was genial. If the campers weren’t thrilled by the visit from the police, they took it in stride. Perhaps it helped that Zoulas and Ubois made it clear that they weren’t there to make arrests or write tickets that day. (Indeed, the north side of the river isn’t even on their beat.)
Still, everyone knew that the camp would soon be gone. Ironhead explained that another officer had been there two days earlier and put the campers on notice that a bust was coming. Ironhead added that that visit was not nearly as pleasant and amiable as this one. “He was yelling and screaming. Straight up harassing us,” he said.
Zoulas held his hand out, palm down, as if to say, “Calm down.”
Though the camp is not technically his responsibility, he has a relationship with these campers, a long-standing and complicated relationship. He said he rarely arrests someone the first time he or she is caught camping, and the team always posts a warning at a campsite before returning two or three days later to tear the site down. “If the day comes,” he said, and then he corrected himself. “When the day comes, I will personally come out here to give you a warning. A long warning. OK?”
It should be noted that Zoulas and Ubois seem to be warmly received just about everywhere they go on their beat. As one homeless woman named Elise (also known to her friends as Outback Barbie, for her wild, blond dreadlocks) said of Zoulas, “He’s all right, for a cop.” But like most campers, Elise has found it increasingly difficult to find a place to sleep. “They get me for camping all the time now. Last year, I got arrested three times.”
The stepped-up enforcement can be seen clearly in arrest statistics. According to the Sacramento Police Department, city officers arrested or cited 142 people for unlawful camping in 1999. By 2002, that number had jumped to 349, and it is on track to surpass that this year.
The numbers increased dramatically after City Attorney Sam Jackson, at the direction of the city council and then newly elected Mayor Heather Fargo, took over prosecution of camping cases as well as a host of other city ordinances that previously had been prosecuted by the Sacramento County district attorney. And Jackson’s department has prosecuted the camping cases with zeal, filing more than 800 camping cases in the first year. (The number reflects citations referred by county park rangers as well as city police.)
More than in any other part of the city, the anti-camping crackdown has occurred in Zoulas and Ubois’ territory, which roughly overlaps the Richards Boulevard Redevelopment Area, some 1,400 acres of mostly light industrial facilities, state offices, scrap yards and warehouses. On its southern edge is the Union Pacific Railyard, mostly abandoned. Its northern border is the American River Parkway, which is still home to hundreds of homeless campers every night, despite the efforts to clamp down.
The area is a sort of frontier land, land that city leaders are anxious to settle. City planners estimate there is room for 6,500 new houses and apartments and some 15 million square feet of office space. The rail-yard portion also may become home to a new basketball arena and entertainment complex. It is enough real estate to build a whole new downtown, or an uptown if you prefer.
Redevelopment of the area has been long in coming, but there are signs that this neighborhood is changing. Here and there, antique stores are popping up among the warehouses. These kinds of businesses are pioneers of redevelopment, said Connie Miottel, executive director of the Capitol Station District, the area that covers this swath of land north of downtown. Auction houses, the new Capitol Casino and the rock-climbing gym on 16th Street all are among the pioneers, said Miottel. “And real-estate brokers are sniffing around the area now,” she added.
A few major redevelopment projects are beginning. The long-awaited Seventh Street Connector, a broad two-way avenue traversing the rail yard’s wasteland, is set to be finished late this year. It will create the most direct connection between downtown and Richards Boulevard. The $21 million project is regarded by city planners as vitally important to opening the area for new development.
Zoulas said that on groundbreaking day for the connector, word came from City Hall that he and Ubois were to make sure no homeless people were sleeping or hanging out on the levee, perhaps for fear that their presence would have marred the celebration.
Hot on the heels of the Seventh Street Connector comes “Northtown,” a 54-acre housing and office complex at the corner of North Seventh Street and Richards Boulevard, which will be the first major new development in the area. “Things are just beginning to gel out here,” said Miottel.
But if Richards Boulevard is a place of great development hope—1,400 acres of prime real estate and the resultant tax revenue flowing into city coffers—it is also a place of great despair, where the city’s poorest citizens have been funneled for decades, and home of the greatest concentration of social services anywhere in the Sacramento region. Not surprisingly, the redevelopment agenda of the city leaders and the survival agenda of the city’s poorest citizens have collided.
It is likely no coincidence that the crackdown on the homeless camping and on petty crime gained momentum at about the same time that the redevelopment of Richards began to “gel.” When Fargo took office in January 2001, redevelopment of the Richards Boulevard and rail-yard area was one of her top priorities. During her election campaign, Fargo, with the help of campaign consultant Richie Ross (also a consultant to the Sacramento Kings’ owners, the Maloof family) began to push the idea of a new downtown basketball arena for the Kings to jumpstart redevelopment north of downtown. The month after Fargo took office, the city attorney took over enforcement of the camping laws and other city ordinances aimed at the homeless. Antique stores aren’t the only early signs of redevelopment. Camping tickets may be, as well.
The downtown area long has been a battleground for the homeless, businesses and the police. For years, groups like the Downtown Partnership, a coalition of downtown business owners, have lobbied for greater police service and even hired a private troop of Downtown Guides—part ambassadors and part security guards who are more commonly referred to as the “bumblebees” for their yellow and black uniforms—to help deal with the homeless population. The guides’ presence is intended to make shoppers feel safe and discourage panhandling and drinking; the guides call the cops in case of real trouble.
The bumblebees, and an aggressive crackdown by police on public drunkenness, have helped “maintain a level of street stability that has made a big difference,” said Ryan Loofbourrow, director of community services for the Downtown Partnership. “There has been a real transformation in the past five years, to where we could bring in a Hard Rock [Café] and IMAX [Theatre].”
Now it appears the city wants to bring that stability to its northern front and is turning its attention to the as-yet-untamed Richards Boulevard area. Many see the crackdown on camping as linked, first and foremost, to the city’s economic-development goals.
“The city is trying to criminalize homelessness,” said Bill Kennedy, the director of Legal Services of Northern California. “And I’m certain that it has everything to do with the redevelopment of Richards Boulevard.”
City officials say the increased law enforcement in the area is merely aimed at getting homeless people into the many services offered in the city and county. They deny the crackdown is driven by an economic agenda. “I don’t think it has anything to do with redevelopment being right around the corner,” said Liz Brenner, public information officer for the city of Sacramento.
Sacramento has a long tradition of beefing up police presence in redevelopment areas. “Look at Old Sac. It was a skid row at one time,” until it became a redevelopment area, said Brenner. Then, police cracked down on the winos, and the city tore down many of the cheap hotels that once existed there. (The loss of those hotel rooms also may have contributed to the city’s growing homeless population, say housing advocates.)
Police spokesman Sgt. Justin Risley said the notion that police are trying to rid downtown Sacramento of homeless people is simply not true. “We’re not trying to criminalize them. We’re not trying to get rid of them. We’re just trying to get them to follow the law.”
Many city officials, such as Risley and Brenner, complain that homeless campers have no legitimate reason for sleeping outside and that they are merely people who “don’t want to follow any rules.”
In fact, people give many reasons for not seeking space in a homeless shelter. Some shelters, such as the Union Gospel Mission, require people to participate in religious services, which many people refuse to do. Many homeless people speak of shelters in terms of being institutionalized or locked up, and complain that they feel much more likely to be victims of crime inside the shelters than among friends on the river.
A young man named Michael, who has been moving from site to site for about four months with a group of campers calling themselves the Brigade, gave security as a reason for avoiding the shelters. “I just feel safer with this group of people,” he said, snuggled into a sleeping bag with his puppy, Betty Boop. “I don’t really feel like being locked in with a bunch of crackpots and loons.”
City officials say there was not one night last year that the overflow shelter at Cal Expo turned people away. But Tim Brown, director of Loaves and Fishes, said the number of homeless people far outstrips the handful of vacant beds on any given night. Loaves and Fishes estimates that 1,600 beds—mostly for families—are needed.
Once inside, the homeless often have to give up freedoms most people take for granted. For example, because shelters segregate men and women, many couples prefer to stay together outside the shelter. “You and I have the freedom to make decisions when we get home. For them, its like, ‘Join this boot camp, and you’ve got a place to stay,’” said attorney Kelly Tanalepy. “I, for one, would rather make myself a nice safe little place to stay on the river,” she added.
Kennedy bristled at the often-used term “service-resistant” to describe homeless campers that avoid shelters. “Certainly, some people are resistant to the warehousing of people. Frankly, I can understand that.”
Perhaps no one has been more service-resistant than Billy McManus, a 50-year-old homeless man who has become a hero among members of the Brigade and other campers, and public enemy No. 1 among city officials trying to stamp out illegal camping.
McManus made waves at City Hall by insisting on a jury trial after being cited for camping. The vast majority of camping cases wind up with guilty pleas and the person agreeing to probation and a few hours of community service. Often, one of the conditions of probation is that the offender must agree not to return to the American River Parkway at all. Advocates for the homeless say such probation conditions unfairly bar homeless people from the largest park in Sacramento, simply because they are poor. The condition also means that a person found in the park, if cited for violation of probation, has no right to a trial.
McManus would not accept a deal and was the first to take a camping case—two cases in fact—to trial in five years. “I’m just doing what I feel is right. They made this an issue, not me,” McManus explained. He said he was chided by park rangers for not giving up his dogs and going into a shelter. “They said, ‘Get rid of your dogs.’ I said, ‘Get rid of your kids.’” (The refusal to abandon their pets is another, surprisingly common, reason people give for avoiding shelters.)
McManus stunned city leaders by winning one case and ending up with a hung jury in another. The city decided to retry the case and upped the ante. Jackson, the city attorney himself, tried the case. Jackson won the retrial but also was criticized by advocates of the homeless for pursuing a camping case so aggressively. Some, such as Clinkenbeard, began to refer to Jackson as Pontius Pilate.
McManus is now appealing the retrial. In the meantime, he has picked up another two camping citations. Clinkenbeard, who usually defends indigent clients in homicide cases, has stepped in to be McManus’ defense attorney. That did not sit well with the city attorney’s office, which attempted to have Clinkenbeard kicked off the case and argued that the public defender only took it to advance his own political agenda, an overturn of the city’s camping law. But Judge James Henke denied the motion.
McManus believes the city attorney has his own political agenda for trying to get rid of Clinkenbeard. “I think they’re scared I’m going to win. I think they’re scared things in this city are going to change,” he said. McManus is scheduled to go to trial in May. Supporters and critics of the camping ordinance are watching closely, believing the outcome will set a precedent.
For weeks, Jackson refused to return calls about the camping crackdown and the McManus case, sending word through his assistants that he “doesn’t do interviews.” He finally did submit to a few questions, although he declined to answer many. He said he was only doing the job set for him by the city council, which is to step up enforcement of all city codes. “Across the board, we are doing the best we can,” he explained. “We hope like heck it is working, but we just don’t know at this point.”
He refused to talk at all about the fiscal impact of prosecuting so many more misdemeanor cases and said only, “I’m going to hang up the phone if you ask me that again.” At the mere mention of McManus, Jackson did hang up, after saying, “I’m not answering any more questions. Goodbye.”
It may not be long before the city attorney has to fend off another insurgency in the courts. Kennedy said Legal Services of Northern California has begun collecting data that could become the basis of a civil suit against the city’s camping ordinance. Although the courts previously have upheld such laws as constitutional “on their face,” Kennedy said the Sacramento law can be challenged as unconstitutional because it discriminates against a certain economic class. Kennedy could not say how long the data collection would take or when a suit might be filed.
Resistance to the camping ordinance also is being seen in a quixotic attempt by homeless organizers to establish a tent city, or a legally sanctioned campground. Activists from the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee have petitioned several times for camping permits in city parks that are close to homeless services, such as the one at Sutter’s Landing on 28th and C streets. But city officials have denied every request.
The city has experimented with homeless campgrounds in the past, said Zoulas, adding that the results were disastrous. There was a legal campground for homeless people in the Richards Boulevard area around 1979, right behind the current location of the Union Gospel Mission. “But it was like Dodge City in there. No rules at all,” Zoulas said. “Police officers had to go in there in twos and threes because they were scared.” He said he believes the city shut it down after a homeless man was stabbed to death.
Fargo said she never would support a tent city inside Sacramento city limits and argued that city parks are not meant for camping. She did say that as a member of the Sacramento County and Cities Board on Homelessness she would be open to discussing a tent city farther out, perhaps somewhere in the area of Mather Field. The position is in keeping with her often-articulated belief that social services are far too concentrated in the city of Sacramento and that outlying communities aren’t doing their fair share.
Advocates for a tent city draw hope from other cities, such as Seattle and Portland, where local governments are experimenting with legal campgrounds. Portland lifted its anti-camping ban on one acre of city land on the edge of its downtown to make way for Dignity Village. The tent city has room for about 100 people and is run by its residents with some help from the city housing department. Problems with alcohol and violence have popped up, but, for nearly three years, Dignity Village has hung on as an alternative to homeless shelters.
An official “no” from the city of Sacramento isn’t likely to stop activists. The overflow shelter at Cal Expo closes for the summer this month. The warm weather likely will mean more campers, and the current economic recession may cause the county to cut back on some of its year-round beds. As the weather warms up, officers Zoulas and Ubois expect a spike in the camping population.
Because of the crackdown on camping and other ordinances, homeless people and their advocates are engaged in a constant battle of legal triage.
On the last Wednesday of every month, dozens of homeless people attend the free legal clinic that is provided by the Sacramento County public defender’s office.
The clinic is held in a portable building at the Loaves and Fishes complex on North C Street. The clinic was created in response to the increasing citations of homeless people in the last two years. Clinic staff members, including Clinkenbeard and Tanalepy, say constant ticketing of homeless people for petty crimes such as jaywalking or riding Regional Transit without a ticket—or camping—only makes it more difficult for people to break out of homelessness.
The attorneys give advice, help to set court dates (most of the cases appear on a special calendar in the Sacramento Superior Court) and even can help get warrants removed. When the clinic opened three years ago, the staff handled 200 cases. Last year, it cleared nearly 2,800, and the pace hasn’t slackened.
But everything stopped one day in late February when the police arrived. It turned out to be Zoulas, riding that day with another partner, officer Mike Cooper, because Ubois was out with an injured back.
The officers came to the clinic to pick up a woman named China for outstanding warrants. Apparently, China had come to the legal clinic at the urging of other Loaves and Fishes clients.
Clinkenbeard was livid, arguing that the police had no right to intrude in a meeting between clients and their attorneys. He argued that many people in the clinic had come to take care of their warrants, not to be poached by police officers.
Many of the clients appeared angry and uneasy. Some clearly believed that the legal clinic was a sort of sanctuary. Nonetheless, Cooper and Zoulas cuffed China and took her away, leaving the attorneys and their clients stunned.
Zoulas later explained that Cooper had been looking for China for several days and that the officers received a tip from inside the Loaves and Fishes park that she was at the legal clinic. The officers decided they couldn’t wait for China to leave the complex. Still, Zoulas regretted the intrusion into the legal clinic, something that had never happened before.
“They think it’s a travesty. I wasn’t so wild about it myself,” said Zoulas.
For Geraldine Baskerville, the other co-director of the legal clinic, it was a sign of the times, further evidence that homeless people and homeless services in the Richards Boulevard area are increasingly tenuous and unwelcome.
“We used to be kind of on the outskirts of the city,” said Baskerville. “Now we’re right in the gateway to the city. It just feels like we’re in the way.”