Fight to rest: The battle for solutions to homelessness continues at City Hall

This week, homeless protesters begin their third month of occupation as leaders search for answers

John Quinones says the No. 1 obstacle for him leaving the American River Parkway is housing.

John Quinones says the No. 1 obstacle for him leaving the American River Parkway is housing.

photo by michael miller

Highway 160 is Sacramento’s gateway. It’s a route many people will take to get to the much touted “Downtown 3.0,” and the shiny new Kings arena. But it’s also a window into our homelessness crisis.

The sights that greet visitors as the freeway zigzags through the north side, then shoots into the heart of the city, include: men and woman pushing shopping carts, an abandoned gas station, people loitering on street corners, a sex shop, Loaves & Fishes and its homeless-services facilities, and a triangle-shaped lot dressed with weeds and litter. Welcome to Sacramento.

And this is not to mention the things and people you don’t see on the drive into downtown: men—and some women—underneath the freeway and tucked amid the brush and trees of the American River Parkway.

John Quinones is one of those people. He says he’s been homeless in Sacramento going on 13 years. On a recent Friday afternoon, he was readying his campsite underneath Highway 160 for a wet and windy storm on the horizon. He boiled a pot of water atop a small fire. He also cleared the bluff near his tent of sharp metal debris, which he said somebody dumped a few weeks earlier. Heavy winds actually pluck these sheaths from the parkway ground and shoot them at his campsite, he said.

Quinones had a normal life before he was forced to the streets. He explained something about a family member getting into serious legal trouble. “And then it kind of fell apart. It’s a long story,” he said, a common refrain.

This past week, Quinones wasn’t alone on the strip of parkway near Highway 160 at Northgate Boulevard. SN&R counted 57 campsites in the area, most with tents. The majority were out of sight, hidden from main roads or the levees, tidy and clean—but the few eyesore campsites, thrashed and riddled with garbage, leave an impression.

County rangers do come by, occasionally, ushering people to move on. But not as often as they’ve done in the past. He says he’s done the homeless-shelter thing, but it’s never worked out. And he’s frustrated.

“It’s illegal for us to be homeless,” he said. “We have to lay down. But we can’t lay in the streets.

“No matter what, tonight I will have to lay down.”

Demanding a right to rest

A couple of miles away from the parkway campsites, homeless activists are out front of City Hall fighting for Quinones’ right to sleep somewhere. This past Monday was the group’s 56th day of protesting on the grounds. And, according to one of the organizers, James “Faygo” Clark, they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.

He says that the only thing that will get him and his fellow activists off of a muddy lawn near Ninth Street will be the voiding of, or significant changes to, City Code 12.52.030, otherwise known as the “Anti-Camping Ordinance.”

Anything else won’t do. Not even a “safe ground” for people to put up tents, or sleep in small sheds. “I think that would be nice of them. But a safe ground still would mean thousands of people in Sacramento without shelter,” Clark said. “So, that doesn’t go far enough.

“What we want is an amendment or a repeal of the anti-camping ordinance.”

Clark’s protest began on December 8. But his effort to kickstart discussion of city and county homelessness policies has been years long.

Before spending his days out front of City Hall, Clark could be seen often at a Midtown coffeehouse on N Street. The 35-year-old holdout from the Occupy Sacramento movement spent a lot of his days organizing protests against the south Sacramento Nestlé Water Plant. He also launched something called the Community Dinner Project in 2014, on the heels of a newly passed city law that banned nonpermitted feedings of homeless people on public property. These Dinner Projects took place each Tuesday night before city council meetings. Some weeks, there would be only a handful of diners. But after a year, on December 8, Clark announced to the crowd of dozens that they would kick off an occupation of City Hall grounds in protest of the anti-camping ordinance.

“The anti-camping ordinance criminalizes individuals who have no place else to go,” Clark told SN&R that first evening. “If you lay down and go to sleep [outside], that’s illegal. If you have a sleeping bag to keep warm, that’s illegal.”

It is difficult to put a number on the actual citations issued under the anti-camping ordinance. This is because city police, county deputies and park rangers all issue them, and there’s no single source that collects them together. It’s also challenging because a citation can be charged as either an infraction or a misdemeanor, which means that two different local courthouses process them. And so, the numbers obtained by SN&R are incomplete.

But the few statistics we acquired show that the number of citations has increased over the years. In 2007, for instance, only 15 were issued by the city. That number jumped to 152 in 2008. But, after the realignment of the state’s prison system in 2011, 675 citations were issued in 2012; 721 in 2013; and 1,064 in 2014—and even more in the last year.

When an individual receives a citation, they can either pay the $230 fine, fight it at Carol Miller Justice Center—which is far from downtown—or visit places such as the legal clinic at Loaves & Fishes, where they arrange for work service.

Attorney and activist Mark Merin, who has challenged the city’s ordinance in court, is currently taking an inventory of years’ worth of citations. He believes that law enforcement uniquely targets homeless people.

Indeed, poring through the citations at Merin’s office revealed a catalog of offenders without homes. Men and woman camping near Howe Access, or Woodlake Access, or Garden Highway, or Campus Commons. Many of them have 1231 North C Street (a.k.a. Loaves & Fishes) or 400 Bannon Street (Union Gospel Mission) as their listed “home address.”

That’s why City Hall has become home for so many protesters in the past couple of months.

In the beginning, their protest continued for weeks without incident. In fact, activist Steve Handlin, who is not homeless, said at the time that law enforcement would come around to make sure everyone at the occupation was OK. “They’re nice and friendly,” he said.

Everything changed on New Year’s Day. Just before midnight, police showed up at the occupation. And, by 1 a.m., at least 48 officers, some clad in equipment often referred to as “riot gear,” broke up the protest. Seven activists were detained and cited, and four were taken downtown to jail.

Police enforcement against the protesters continues. More than two dozen arrests and detentions have been made, in addition to confiscation of belongings, since January 1. But by all accounts, city leaders will not be tweaking, let alone repealing, the anti-camping ordinance.

The debate came to a head at a council meeting on January 19, when it was abruptly adjourned because of what Councilman Rick Jennings described as disruption by protesters in the audience.

This past Monday, law enforcement showed up in the evening to warn protesters that they cannot camp or possess sleeping bags on City Hall property, as they do on most nights.

Yet the next day, Tuesday, there were dozens of men and women laying on blankets, and even inside sleeping bags, underneath City Hall’s overhang, out of the rain and the wind.

Any solutions?

What would it take to bring John Quinones out from camping under Highway 160?

“It’s hard to leave,” he said. “I could use help with housing.”

Same goes for Sean McGlynn, who three months ago was actually employed by Sacramento Steps Forward, working on homeless outreach, helping to get people housed. Now, he’s living in the parkway, too.

“It’s no reflection on them. I just burned out. There are so many people now, so many people that you can’t help,” he said of his job. He estimated that there are two to three times more homeless people than there were even a few years ago in Sacramento.

Homeless-service and housing providers that SN&R spoke with for this story agree. They also say that the city, county and Steps Forward are doing a lot better job in recent years of getting people into housing.

The challenge is that even more people are becoming homeless.

There are many new factors: loss of funding for low-income housing, the downtown development and new arena pushing homeless people into more visible places, the high cost of housing in Sacramento forcing people onto the streets, and so on.

This doesn’t mean local electeds are sitting on their hands.

For years, Councilman Jay Schenirer has been one of the few leaders actually willing to spend public money to solve homelessness problems. The good news, he says, is that more of his colleagues now agree with him.

“You have a unanimous council that wants to work on these issues, that’s vastly different than five years ago,” he told SN&R.

So, what are the solutions?

Sacramento Steps Forward’s plan of assessing local homeless people and getting them into housing as soon as possible is working, he says. “The challenge there is resources for the plan,” Schenirer said. He means money.

McGlynn agrees. “That’s the sad part. I think it’s just money.” he said. “With money, you get housing. Why am I out here today? Lack of money. I’m just depressed. I’m tired. I’m burned out on the whole thing.”

Schenirer said the city’s new subcomittee will be exploring options for funding projects such as a safe ground. He thinks that, like in Denver or Salt Lake City, there are ways to work with local hospitals to acquire matching funds for housing. And he’s optimistic about partnering with the county going forward, and using county funding more efficiently.

“In the long term, I feel pretty good about it,” he said.

“But that doesn’t solve the now.”

That doesn’t get Quinones off the river’s edge any time soon. That doesn’t put food on his plate.

“The law in this majestic country prohibits both the rich and the poor from digging through dumpsters,” Quinones told SN&R, his voice hoarse. “Unfortunately, we have to do it to survive.”