Crisis course correction

County officials follow City Hall’s lead on declaring a homeless shelter crisis, but not when it comes to enforcement of homeless encampments

Sacramento County leaders last week grappled with the legal implications of their anti-camping ordinance and then declared an official shelter crisis. The latter move puts the entire region one step closer to harnessing a new funding source meant to help those on the streets.

The ground shifted for elected officials and law enforcement around the nation in early September when the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that issuing criminal citations to people who are camping is, in some cases, cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling was leveled against the city of Boise, Idaho, which is appealing the verdict.

The city of Sacramento has decided to ignore the legal development until Boise’s appeal is heard. Meanwhile, Sacramento County supervisors weighed their own options October 16 as County Counsel Robyn Truitt reviewed the Boise decision with them.

“The city of Sacramento’s ordinance is almost word for word the same as Boise’s,” Truitt remarked. “Our [county] ordinance was written in 1971. It clearly hasn’t been updated or refreshed for these times in this economy.”

Truitt said her interpretation of the Boise ruling is that it’s not a matter of anti-camping rules being unconstitutional, but rather how they’re applied. Specifically, she said, the issue comes down to whether a person has an alternative place to go or not. That problem comes up enough that county rangers patrolling the American River Parkway have already changed some of their tactics since the Boise ruling.

Rob Leonard, the deputy county executive for municipal services, told supervisors that rangers are no longer citing people for camping without a permit, illegal camping or camping on public or private land. Leonard noted that rangers are continuing to cite individuals for littering, starting camp fires, having dogs off leashes, possessing open alcohol containers and bringing shopping carts into the greenway.

Raising concerns about wildfires and river pollution, the supervisors asked their staff to do more research before any vote is taken on officially changing the county’s anti-camping ordinance.

They were more decisive when it came to the next item of business—declaring a homeless shelter crisis. It was a critical step for making sure the region can access the governor’s new Homeless Emergency Aid Program, or HEAP, which will bring an additional $5.6 million of shelter resources to the city of Sacramento and $12.7 million to Sacramento Steps Forward, the coordinating agency for front-line homeless services.

To get the money, both the city and the county had to declare a shelter crisis. Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg has indicated the City Council will take the same vote by the end of the month.

Ben Avey, chief public affairs officer for Steps Forward, said his agency is now reaching out to the smaller cities within Sacramento County to see if they plan to do the same.

“We’re finalizing what the partnership will look like and who’s participating,” Avey said, adding that Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova, Citrus Heights and Folsom have until the end of December to decide.

In August, Steps Forward held a public workshop to unveil early conceptual ideas on spending the money and to get input from the public. A number of homeless advocates who attended were put off by a lack of emphasis on adding new shelter beds.

This week, Avey said the plan has evolved to ensure that more shelter beds will be added, both in the city and the county.

“We did take public feedback from that workshop into consideration and modified the plan we’re forming to reflect that,” Avey noted. “We’re excited. It’s not just about the money, it’s about the collaboration between the city and the county and the continuum of care. That’s the kind of collaboration it’s going to take to find solutions long-term.”