The tent collectors: Despite assurances, doubt rages over whether cops are still taking homeless people’s stuff

Sacramento police say they’re sticking to their promise to not confiscate survival gear

The Sacramento Police Department says it’s responding almost daily to homeless-related complaints in the downtown core, but what’s happening to people’s stuff?

The Sacramento Police Department says it’s responding almost daily to homeless-related complaints in the downtown core, but what’s happening to people’s stuff?

Photo by Raheem F. Hosseini

The flatbed pickup truck tattooed with Police Department decals lumbered along 16th Street, piled high with other people’s things. A red baby stroller lay up front, jammed against a garbage bag and plastic waste bins crammed with blankets, clothing and the sort of survival gear the city says its officers no longer take from individuals experiencing homelessness.

As the winter starts to get wet again, skepticism over that promise has flared on social media and tested trust on the streets.

Back in July, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg told SN&R the Police Department assured the City Council that officers are prevented by their general orders from confiscating homeless people’s belongings.

“I don’t think we should hassle homeless people who aren’t bothering anyone, and I don’t believe that we are,” he said then.

Steinberg was unavailable for comment Tuesday, but a police spokesman told SN&R that deal is being kept to.

Sgt. Vance Chandler said officers only take homeless people’s property if they’re being arrested or if a camp has been abandoned for longer than 24 hours. In both cases, Chandler said, officers take everything to a property warehouse where homeless individuals can reclaim their things.

“We take it for safekeeping,” he said.

Some homeless people and advocates are doubtful that’s what’s happening.

Kimberly Church, a Sacramento City College faculty member who operates a weekly safe space for homeless adults under 30, started handing out sleeping bags and other outdoor gear tagged with “E.N.G.A.G.E., Inc,” the name of her budding nonprofit, to see if cops are still hauling away people’s survival gear, as some of her guests have told her.

On January 4, she posted photos to her Facebook profile of a gloves-wearing police officer standing by a tent and a pile of other items as he wrote on a clipboard and a woman stood nearby. A flatbed police truck with a bicycle in the back idled nose to end with another pickup filled with a menagerie of items. Church wrote that the scene occurred near Loaves & Fishes, an area dotted with small campsites on sidewalks.

“Taking tents and sleeping bags from people with no access to shelter = sadistic imo,” she wrote in the post, which was shared more than 50 times.

Chandler confirmed that complaints to the Police Department have drawn officers to that area on an almost daily basis. But he said no one’s stuff is being taken without their permission, unless they’re being arrested. Even then, he said, homeless people are given receipts to reclaim their belongings. He didn’t know how long property remains at the warehouse before it’s destroyed, but believed it was longer than three days.

Joan Burke is the program director at Loaves & Fishes, where many of the recent police sightings have been. She said she’s been asking her staff and guests for months if police were still confiscating survival gear, but hasn’t heard any accounts.

On January 12, SN&R followed the police pickup packed with warm-weather gear as it swung off 16th Street and crawled into the parking lot of Capitol Casino, a downtown card room whose restaurant is popular among local law enforcement.

Down the street, two individuals experiencing long bouts of homelessness said police officers had also come the day before to take people’s tents and blankets.

“They do it all the time,” said a woman who gave her name as Lady T. “All the time.”

“Then they play the game,” she added. “They send you to the river. Then the ones on the river send you back down here. I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years. And then they go and put a note on [your tent] and tell you to move. Move where?”

Before she became homeless, Lady T said she worked as a phlebotomist at the Mercy San Juan Medical Center in Carmichael. Then the recession detonated and the new four-bedroom house she was in the process of buying in Elk Grove became the capsized vessel that submerged her into poverty.

“The only reason why I’m out here is because of domestic violence and foreclosure,” she said. “It just makes no sense.”

Her friend Dean said he’s been homeless for three years. Lady T said he’s a military veteran and licensed vocational nurse. Dean said he sees the cops confiscating homeless people’s belongings every week. Lady T said it happens more often than that.

She said she sometimes crosses paths with the navigators who are hired by Sacramento Steps Forward to conduct outreach and connect homeless individuals with services, particularly along the riverbanks. But she most often sees the cops.

“They just keep giving you tickets or little eviction notices, and then basically they turn into warrants,” she said. “And then you’re sitting there minding your own business, then all of a sudden, oh, you go to jail. Hey, you know the story.”

During a City Council meeting on January 9, Mayor Steinberg said the city was making headway on a $64-million pilot program promising intensive outreach and case management to Sacramento’s burgeoning homeless population. He said 257 homeless people had been pre-enrolled into a pathways program set to launch this spring. All but 19 were residing in the city’s north area, where a new temporary emergency shelter opened on Railroad Avenue.

The shelter is still gearing up, despite promises last fall to “activate” 300 new beds by December 1, 2017. As of January 9, Steinberg said, 157 people were staying at the shelter.

Burke said police have been offering some of the people camping on the sidewalks near Loaves a ride to the shelter. If they accept, officers offer to taxi their stuff with them, she and Sgt. Chandler said.

Lady T, bundled against the boggy chill and leaning against a bicycle, is currently living out of a blue tent backed up to the boarded-up side of a brick warehouse building at the corner of 16th and North B streets. She said she has not gotten that offer.

Asked if there was any positive aspect to law enforcement contacts—like being referred to the new shelter or some other service, Lady T gestured to her surroundings on the corner of a busy intersection, down the alley from several more tents and people huddled under piles of soiled blankets.

“This is it, baby,” she said. “This is it.”