Debunking five myths about Sacramento’s latest homelessness debate
Our shelters do not have enough beds for everyone, and other necessary facts.
With tensions frothing between Sacramento city officials and the local Right to Rest protest movement, SN&R decided to tackle some of the most common—and insulting—misconceptions about the current debate.
Myth No. 1: This is about camping.
We remember camping: Mom smearing us with mosquito repellant, dad wrestling with tent poles—the city of Sacramento’s “unlawful camping” ordinance has nothing to do with that.
“This makes it against the law to live outdoors,” explains Paula Lomazzi, a former homeless woman who runs the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee. “And when there’s not [another] option for everyone, that’s like saying you can’t exist.”
As written, city code 12.52.030 prohibits camping on any public or private property—so, everywhere—unless it’s for temporary recreation or events. In other words, it’s OK to sleep outside unless that’s your only choice.
And if it is, be prepared to pay a $1,000 fine and spend six months in jail, because the city has couched its ordinance under the state’s public nuisance law. Violating it is a misdemeanor, which means a criminal record, though most violations are reduced to infractions.
“Making it a crime to live outside doesn’t keep anyone from living outside,” says Niki Jones of Wind Youth Services, the area’s only service-provider for young people experiencing homelessness. “It just makes it harder to change your situation.”
Myth No. 2: There’s enough shelter to go around.
Not even close, says Joan Burke, Sacramento Loaves & Fishes’ advocacy director. “The most important fact about the emergency shelter system in Sacramento is that the shelters do not have enough beds for everyone seeking shelter and routinely turn away people for lack of space,” she says by email.
All totaled, there are 1,033 slots scattered across more than two-dozen shelter or motel programs in Sacramento County, “each with its own intake procedures and target populations,” Burke says. “The process of getting into a shelter is anything but user friendly or efficient.”
By the city’s own low-ball estimate, 2,659 people experience homelessness on any given night in Sacramento County. (There are actually way more, but we’ll get to that later.) That right there shows there aren’t nearly enough beds to go around.
A Loaves & Fishes survey of 336 guests who arrived for lunch one day revealed that 63 percent of them had slept outside the previous night. The wait-list for Wind’s 12-bed shelter, meanwhile, includes more than 100 people, says development director Sarah Mullins.
The city likes to wave a 5 percent vacancy rate to prove that there’s still room at the shelters, but that’s fuzzy math of the most disingenuous order. Burke says people sometimes don’t show up at the last minute for reservations. Then there are the homeless people with mental and developmental disabilities, physical ailments or substance addictions (it’s often a cocktail) who Burke says simply can’t function in a communal shelter setting. There are few, if any, crisis-placement options for them.
“This handful of unfilled beds is what permits the powers that be to proclaim that our shelters have vacancies,” she says.
Myth No. 3: There are “only” 2,659 homeless people in Sacramento.
That number comes from a biennial tally called the point-in-time, or PIT, survey, and is accepted as the standard when it comes to quantifying how many people experience homelessness on any given night in Sacramento County.
It’s also a massive understatement, say homeless-service providers.
First off, PIT surveys occur every two years on a single winter night when homeless residents are even less likely to dwell in heavily trafficked areas due to the weather. They don’t account for anyone who’s couch-surfing, staying in a motel or sleeping in a car. These massive undertakings are also undercut by planning shortcomings and inadequate training, say two service providers who participated in them.
“It was really sloppily done,” says one.
Yet the city swears by these figures, saying on its website that the PIT survey “is the community’s best way to estimate the number of people experiencing homelessness, including those in certain subpopulations, such as transition-age youth.”
Worse, we in the media often repeat the PIT figures without qualification, as if they accurately reflect the scope of our housing problem. They don’t.
To put it in perspective, the 2015 PIT count found 291 homeless youth under the age of 24. But the Wind drop-in center for homeless youth served 918 different individuals from this age group last year. “Youth experiencing homelessness are grossly under reported,” Mullins says.
Get ready to have your mind blown. According to an analysis of federal enrollment data—which does include couch-surfing and sleeping in cars or motels—the California Homeless Youth Project determined that nearly 12,000 local school children lacked permanent housing during the 2012-13 school year. And that’s just kids.
Reconnecting this to the camping issue was PS7 elementary school teacher Erica Talbott, who put the matter in stark relief at a recent city council meeting. “I find it absolutely tragic that the students in my classroom … are unable to learn during the day because they are unable to sleep at night, all due to the camping ordinance that’s in place. Because of this law, my 8-year-olds are criminals,” she told council members. “I respectfully ask you where they are supposed to sleep tonight.”
The council didn’t have an answer. But it’s always been better at counting votes than counting constituents.
Myth No. 4: “Homeless protesters” are the only ones complaining.
Teachers and labor activists. Medical and nursing students. Religious leaders from Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths. Members of the LGBTQ community and Black Lives Matter movement. And, yes, homeless residents and activists. This is the rapidly expanding coalition that is demanding the repeal of the city’s anti-camping law.
What a real fringe group.
Ever since the occupation outside of City Hall began December 8, 2015, officials have tried to diminish the Right to Rest movement as a small band of agitators who rebuff the city’s attempts to help. But officials are losing that PR battle.
While homeless protesters do make up a majority of those who have camped on City Hall’s front porch for two months now, the coalition goes beyond those without shelter. California Homeless Youth Project director Shahera Hyatt explains this has as much to do with common interests as it does compassion. “The privatization of public space affects us all. The militarization of our police affects us all,” she says. “It’s just that they’ve felt the effects first.”
As the Right to Rest coalition has expanded, its opposition has dwindled in size, if not power. At a recent city council meeting, special-education teacher Trina Allen pointed out the disparity in allies, with politicians, cops and connected business interests on one side, and everyone else on the other. Or, as she put it, “basically the people your policies, your police and your ideology currently and have historically subjugated.”
Myth No. 5: Repealing the anti-camping ordinance will increase public defecation.
Type “Sacramento homeless” into Yahoo’s search engine and the first thing to pop up, thankfully, is “Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee.” But the second result is “Sacramento homeless defecate.”
Disappointingly, poop has become the central talking point for public officials clinging to their increasingly unpopular policy. At a press conference last month, both Councilman Steve Hansen and Deputy Police Chief Ken Bernard offered variations on this theme. Here’s Hansen: “We can’t allow people to camp in alleys, to urinate and defecate wherever they want.” And Bernard: “We want to solve this problem, but we can’t allow people to camp in alleys, camp on the side of houses, urinate and defecate wherever they want to.”
This confused us. Does having the legal right to sleep cause someone to lose control of their bowels?
No, it turns out.
“They have a demented urge to dehumanize people by painting them as one-dimensional barbarians,” says Omar Sahak, who belongs to a group of UC Davis medical and nursing students that’s joined the Right to Rest coalition. “They could rather think about how to meet basic human biological needs. There is a great prototype toilet already developed for the Tenderloin in S.F.”
Hansen and Bernard made what’s called a false equivalency. The city’s argument for keeping the camping ban is riddled with them. Other members of the council, including mayoral candidate Angelique Ashby, keep saying that repealing the ban would somehow mean that they’ve accepted homelessness as the city’s status quo.
Two points: (1) That ship has already sailed. Thank Oprah’s 2009 visit to Tent City. (2) Decriminalizing people’s ability to sleep outside doesn’t mean the city can’t still pursue the permanent housing solutions it’s outlined. In fact, it’ll have more resources to do so since it will spend less on citing, arresting, booking and jailing people for the crime of making us uncomfortable.
“We can work on solutions while honoring somebody’s human dignity and allowing them to sleep,” says Wind’s Jones. “People are going to be going to the bathroom either way. What’s going to affect that is whether there are accessible public restrooms, and there aren’t.”
Case in point: The city recently padlocked public restrooms in city parks and inside of City Hall. It justified the decision on its website by saying the restrooms were being used for illegal activities and had “become filthy.” But that’s misleading. According to a cost analysis document from the city, people were using the restrooms to sleep and bathe.
The camping law prevents public defecation the same way that the city’s public nudity ban erases genitalia: by pushing the crap out of sight.