Rest and unrest: How homelessness becomes a crime in Sacramento

What do protesters and advocates really mean when they talk about ‘criminalization of homelessness’?

Laurence Talbot watched as his partner packed up a tent. It was a dreary Friday morning on Ahern and North C streets. Four police vehicles bookended the block. Along the sidewalk, homeless campers picked up and left for Loaves & Fishes.

A cop standing in front of a patrol wagon explained that officers were there to clear the sidewalk for public safety. They weren’t actually blocking anyone, except maybe other homeless people. But they were in the way.

Since the homeless occupation of City Hall began in early December 2015, Sacramentans have heard much about the “criminalization of homelessness.” But what does that mean? What does it look like? Is it simply, as city council members say, divisive political rhetoric? Or have our homeless finally brought our attention to a civil rights crisis hidden in plain view?

According to Shahera Hyatt of the California Homeless Youth Project, people without housing feel targeted by police for doing everyday things like sitting or lying on public property, sleeping in vehicles, accepting food offered to them or even relieving themselves in the absence of accessible restrooms.

“I talk about it in terms of sitting, eating, standing, sleeping,” explained Hyatt. “Taking it out of the jargon helps to show what is actually happening.”

Here in Sacramento, Sarah Sieck of the Tommy Clinkenbeard Legal Clinic at Loaves & Fishes has seen similar cases come through her doors. These “common offenses of the homeless” include evasion of fares on the light rail, open alcohol containers in public, panhandling and illegal camping.

The Clinkenbeard clinic helps homeless residents navigate the legal system after they’ve gotten citations. It began in 2000 after Sacramento public defender Tommy Clinkenbeard noticed the city’s homeless were unable to receive services they needed due to outstanding warrants incurred for offenses they’d committed in relation to their homeless status.

Today the clinic serves as a first step for homeless residents looking to have their citations resolved. Each month they’ll meet with public defenders, attend a makeshift court at Loaves & Fishes and pay off tickets they’d otherwise be unable to afford with community service hours.

Officials like mayoral candidate and Councilwoman Angelique Ashby have pointed to the Loaves & Fishes court as a success. But is this the answer?

Sieck affirms that those served by the clinic are better off than in any alternative scenario. But the cycle of homeless people passing through for offenses they can’t help but commit remains.

“I’ve been doing this for two years now and I feel like I’m on the same ride,” she said. “It’s not solving the problem.”

By far, the most common cases coming through the clinic are those for illegal camping. That’s no surprise.

Both Hyatt and the protesters outside City Hall argue that such camping citations are unjust in a region without enough shelter beds to house the thousands of homeless residents in the region on a given night.

The U.S. Department of Justice may agree. In an August 2015 Statement of Interest, the DOJ looked at cases involving anti-camping ordinances across the country, concluding that law enforcement cannot enforce camping violations against homeless residents when there are no available shelter beds, since it may qualify as a violation of their Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

But the Sacramento City Council and parks officials stand firm on the law and on enforcement.

In response to rising protests, mayoral candidate Ashby recently referred to the “criminalization of homelessness” as a political term coined in Sacramento. Council members say that lifting the anti-camping ordinance won’t solve homelessness in the region and that protesters and homeless residents alike refuse services and shelter beds nightly.

Homeless protesters like David Andre tell a different story. Andre recalls an instance two weeks ago in which a homeless man seeking shelter with the protesters at City Hall took the police up on their offer of a shelter bed. He was back 45 minutes later. “They gave him a ride in the police car and that was it,” said Andre.

Hyatt says officials need look no further than City Hall’s front lawn to understand they must think more deeply on the issue.

“They’ve got to look inside themselves to see why they’re out of line with the community that they’re ostensibly supposed to serve.”