Illegal-camping crackdown, Tasers, U.N. reports: Sacramento homeless community under attack?

Citations against illegal campers skyrocket as United Nations condemns city’s criminalization of homeless persons

Two activists, including Safe Ground Sacramento president John Kraintz (right), protest lack of access to clean water and sanitation for the region’s homeless individuals last Tuesday at City Hall.

Two activists, including Safe Ground Sacramento president John Kraintz (right), protest lack of access to clean water and sanitation for the region’s homeless individuals last Tuesday at City Hall.

The disbanding of Tent City 2, threats with Tasers, no access to clean water or sanitation, a dramatic rise in illegal-camping citations—Sacramento’s homeless individuals say they’re under attack.

And according to new reports by Sacramento County rangers—and even the United Nations’ Council on Human Rights—they aren’t exaggerating.

In January, for instance, the county’s chief ranger reported that citations for illegal camping shot up nearly 2,000 percent in 2011 over the previous year.

County spokesman Zeke Holst explained that most of these citations occurred near Discovery Park and eastward along the American River.

Beginning last October, city of Sacramento police officers began regularly joining county rangers on patrols of this area. This has resulted in a considerable upswing in the number of $221 illegal-camping tickets: 33 were issued between July and September of 2011, but then 332 were issued between October and December. The report notes that only 29 citations were issued in 2010.

Chief county ranger Stan Lumsden says the huge increase in written citations is “basically the difference between doing [one’s job] and not doing it,” adding that staff finally has the time to enforce the no-camping ordinance and that it’s not a new “crackdown” against homelessness.

Meanwhile, homeless advocate John Kraintz, president of Safe Ground Sacramento, told the city council on January 24 that campers who were ejected from the former Tent City 2 site near North 10th Street are now being threatened with Tasers.

“This business about using Tasers to influence people on the river,” Kraintz told city council, “this is not a good plan.”

Both city and county officials insist Tasers are not being used against homeless persons.

“We don’t threaten people with Tasers,” city of Sacramento Sgt. Andrew Pettit told SN&R. He says officers are instructed to only display or “arc” their Tasers if there is a combative or physical threat, or during riot or crowd control.

County rangers, meanwhile, only recently were given Tasers, on February 1, according to spokesman Holst. Their policy for use is similar to that of the city police.

Either way, Kraintz said there needs to be a de-escalation of patrols and citations. “They’ve got nowhere else to go,” he reminded.

The international community, meanwhile, has taken notice. A United Nations representative who visited Sacramento last year sent a letter this past week to Mayor Kevin Johnson’s office. It condemned homeless living conditions, arguing that homeless people are “increasingly being criminalized” and urged the city to provide access to 24-hour public-restroom facilities and clean water (see “Cruel, inhuman, degrading,” SN&R Frontlines, March 17, 2011).

Johnson spokesman Joaquin McPeek insisted that “no one is more frustrated” than the mayor when it comes to homelessness in the city.

“Our community has made incredible strides in the past few years by moving over 2,300 individuals into permanent housing,” he stated. “But there’s more we need to do.”

The U.N. report describes how one Safe Ground homeless man, “Tim,” engineered a sanitation-waste system for fellow campers. Each week, he collected “bags full of human waste, which varied in weight between 130 to 230 pounds, and [hauled] them on his bicycle a few miles to a local public restroom” for disposal.

This past Tuesday morning, after the report’s release, more than a dozen homeless persons marched in light rain to City Hall for a protest and press conference. They chanted “sanitation, not discrimination” and also brought along “Tim’s” makeshift toilet: an 8-foot-tall tent with a plastic seat inside along with a mountain bike with metal baskets filled with bags for human waste.

Safe Ground’s Kraintz reminded that his organization has offered to pay for clean water and sanitation. But city leaders have rebuffed him, including Councilman Steve Cohn, arguing that the encampment was not sustainable or clean.

“But there’s still the sanitation problem. There’s still the water problem,” Kraintz said. “They’re still making a mess all over the river.”