Sacramento City Hall occupation and protest of homelessness policies enters second week

‘The anti-camping ordinance criminalizes individuals who have no place else to go’

This port-a-potty arrived at City Hall on a Tuesday night and was removed by the city the next day before noon.

This port-a-potty arrived at City Hall on a Tuesday night and was removed by the city the next day before noon.

photo by Nick Miller

A flatbed truck backed onto a City Hall sidewalk, then dumped off a large port-a-potty. So it began: protesters’ indefinite occupation of 915 I Street.

The portable toilet grabbed most of the attention. But this action, which started on Tuesday, December 8, just before the evening’s council meeting, was about more than bathroom breaks. It was about protesting the city’s homelessness policies.

That night, protester James “Faygo” Clark spoke to a crowd waiting in line for the weekly Community Dinner Project meal about the laws he says discriminate against homeless people. Then, he asked people to join him and occupy or “camp out” at City Hall until the laws were overturned.

Activist say they deserve a right to rest without police harassment, in addition to access to clean drinking water and public restrooms. They also say the Department of Justice is on their side, and cite a recent ruling that said “anti-camping laws” are unconstitutional.

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

By day six of the occupation, foldout tables topped with loaves of bread and protesters in chairs overtook a small strip of dead lawn along Ninth Street. Activists chatted and smoked, wrapped tightly in blankets and coats to keep the morning freeze at bay. Food donations arrived regularly, they said, and a pile of more blankets and sleeping bags beneath a tree had grown to more than 3 feet tall.

The occupation clearly was settled in for the long haul. But the game plan had evolved, according to protester Steve Handlin.

“We’re not going to escalate things or get in the police’s face,” he explained. “We’re just offering services that the city does not.”

Handlin, a 38-year-old computer engineer who isn’t homeless but is occupying in solidarity, said the protest had become more about helping others than pitching tents at City Hall and making a scene.

He told the story of Joan, a homeless woman in her 50s who she says can’t sleep through the night because she’s constantly harassed by police. This means Joan doesn’t take her wet shoes off, which means her socks and feet often remain soaked. She complained to fellow occupiers about soreness.

“I used to be in the Army and I recognize trench rot,” Handlin said. He treated her feet and got her new socks. “And she can sleep here, through the night, without the police rousting her.”

There’s also Jimmy, in a wheelchair because doctors amputated his leg last month. Jimmy gets to sleep peacefully at the occupation, too. “He also gets tucked in each night by a couple of hard-looking dudes, big bearded guys: ’We gotta get Jimmy in bed,’” Handlin said, laughing. “It’s a community here.”

He and others say city police have not taken action against the occupation, which has included up to two-dozen campers on some nights.

“At first police had a negative attitude, but after the third day, they come around and ask, ’Is anybody harassing you, is everything OK?’ They’re nice and friendly.”

Police did remove the port-a-potty less than 24 hours after its arrival. They also allegedly cited and towed one of the activist’s trucks, according to activists.

In 2014, city police issued 1,030 citations for illegal camping.

Clark and others say that’s unacceptable—and they won’t be leaving City Hall grounds until it stops. “We need to make sure our voices get heard,” he said.