Street strife

Activists say the city is criminalizing homelessness. Others point out all the positive changes.

Attorney Mark Merin sued the city over the unconstitutionality of its illegal-camping laws, but lost. A judge will hear an appeal this week.

Attorney Mark Merin sued the city over the unconstitutionality of its illegal-camping laws, but lost. A judge will hear an appeal this week.


It’s a new year, and activist groups are fighting the city over what they consider a laundry list of ordinances and actions geared at making things more difficult for homeless Sacramentans. These activists are unequivocal in their position: They say the city has made homelessness a crime.

They say there’s motive, too. Local attorney Mark Merin claims that the increased pressure on homeless people is tied to the arena deal. “The truth is, [the city wants] to beautify the downtown. [It] had a very conscious program,” he said.

The next action will be the A Right to Rest rally on the Capitol Mall next week, on January 20. This protest will immediately precede oral arguments in an appeals case concerning the constitutionality of Sacramento’s illegal-camping ordinance— a hot button issue for homeless-rights advocates, and a case involving Merin directly.

Several people whom Merin gave permission to use his fenced-in property at C and 13th streets were repeatedly removed in 2009, their belongings confiscated by Sacramento police, he says, all because these individuals were sleeping outside.

Merin sued the city in February 2010, but the case was thrown out, the judge upholding Sacramento’s ordinance as protective of public health and safety. He filed an appeal, arguing that making it a crime to sleep outside when no shelter space is available is a violation of constitutional rights.

There has been a spike in arrests and citations for illegal camping in Sacramento over the past year. The 2014 numbers rose by 140 percent from 2013, according to Sacramento Police Department spokesman Justin Brown.

The cause of that jump isn’t clear, but Maya Wallace, external affairs director at Sacramento Steps Forward, suggests the increase in arrests could be attributed to more people camping on the streets in general, or to the increased construction activity in the downtown area. When a city undergoes a major constructive change, she said, “people get pushed to the margins.”

But numbers like these have prompted Sacramento Steps Forward to work with the city. Last year, city council approved up to $1 million over a two-year period in a partnership with Steps Forward. The money will help utilize a new assessment tool—a database of the homeless individuals in the area and the services they receive—as well support an expanded outreach program, which will target services in the areas where more homeless people are dying.

Brown from the Sac PD couldn’t comment as to what’s causing so many illegal-camping arrests, but he did tell SN&R he didn’t think he’d find any arrests for serving or eating at illegal food-sharing events.

Activists also have been targeting the city’s food-sharing ordinance recently. Protesters with the Community Dinner Project serve meals in front of City Hall before every city council meeting, on Tuesdays, in direct defiance of a 2012 ordinance specifically prohibiting such events.

The police often supervise these meals, but Sgt. Rachel Ellis told SN&R this is because sometimes “fights have erupted” among members of homeless communities who don’t get along.

Cesar Chavez Park has long been an epicenter of homeless activity and also a place where organizations handed out meals to the public for years. Activists are concerned, now, about the recent closing of the park’s permanent restrooms, forcing homeless individuals—and anyone else in the park with a full bladder—to spend money to use “for customers only” restrooms in businesses. Or “go” outside.

Alan Tomiyama, recreation manager for the Sacramento Department of Parks and Recreation, wrote in an email that those restrooms are the responsibility of the adjoining restaurant, Cafe Soleil, which closed permanently last month. They are not intended as public restrooms, he explained, and will remain closed until a new tenant secures the space.

But attention on the homeless population can’t all be attributed to the new home for the Kings. Things have been tightening up in Sacramento County, too.

June 2014 saw a new ordinance specifically restricting aggressive solicitation. But it also prohibits asking for money around businesses, bus stops and medians—any location anybody can make any money, said Paula Lomazzi, executive director of Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee.

Also last year, the Old Foothill Farms Community Task Force pushed out a recycling center at Madison Avenue and Auburn Boulevard in the county—and along with it, another source of income for some homeless individuals.

But Michael Baker, a trustee for the Twin Rivers Unified School District and task-force spokesperson, says that most of the neighborhood’s petty crimes—people knocking on doors asking for money, garages broken into, bicycles stolen, lawn items missing—happened when people were scavenging for recyclables, and that those crimes dropped by half when the recycling center closed.

That number is purely anecdotal, but it’s something Baker and others in the community stand by.

City council has been responding to activists’ concerns, at least to some extent. To better serve the population in question, and to address the real issues resulting from chronic homelessness, Sacramento’s first homeless-services coordinator, Emily Hallon, started work this month.

And the money allocated to Steps Forward was on top of the more than $2.5 million the city already spends annually on other homeless services, including the motel-voucher program and emergency shelters, according to a city report.

Whether this is enough of an effort to appease activists for the time being will play out in the months ahead.

If demonstrations at City Hall don’t bring about the intended results, some, like Claire White, who was arrested for disrupting a December 9 city council meeting where she was protesting, are prepared to force a referendum for appeal on the ballot during the next citywide election.