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Sacramento Prosecutor Sues California’s Capital City Over Failure to Clean Up Homeless Encampments
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By Associated Press
Published 7 months ago on
September 19, 2023

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Sacramento’s top prosecutor is suing the city’s leaders over failure to clean up homeless encampments, escalating a monthslong dispute with leaders in California’s capital city.

County District Attorney Thien Ho announced the lawsuit Tuesday during a news conference in Sacramento, noting the homeless population in the city has jumped 250% in the last seven years. A group of residents and business owners also filed a companion lawsuit against the city.

Ho said his office had asked the city to enforce local laws around sidewalk obstruction and to create additional professionally operated camping sites, but that the city did not.

The Impact of Homelessness on the City

Ho said the city is seeing a “collapse into chaos” and an “erosion of everyday life.” Courthouse workers have been harassed and assaulted downtown, and residents and businesses have to deal with drug users and property break-ins, while calls for help to city officials went unanswered, the lawsuit said.

“It’s not compassionate to allow unsafe conditions to fester so badly that a 14-year-old boy cannot ride his bike to school or a group of little girls can’t play soccer on a field littered with needles,” the lawsuit said. “It’s not compassionate when someone in a wheelchair cannot use a sidewalk blocked by tents or a small business is forced to close forever due to repeated broken windows and vandalism.”

Sacramento County had nearly 9,300 homeless people in 2022, based on data from the annual Point in Time count. That was up 67% from 2019. Roughly three-quarters of the county’s homeless population is unsheltered, and the majority of that group are living on Sacramento streets.

Homeless tent encampments have grown visibly in cities across the U.S. but especially in California, which is home to nearly one-third of unhoused people in the country.

Legal Actions and Responses

Ho had threatened in August to file charges against city officials if they didn’t implement changes within 30 days. In a letter to the city, Ho demanded that Sacramento implement a daytime camping ban where homeless people have to put their belongings in storage between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said Ho was politicizing the issue. The city has added 1,200 emergency shelter beds, passed ordinances to protect sidewalks and schools, and has created more affordable housing, Steinberg said in a statement.

The city is trying to avoid “the futile trap of just moving people endlessly from one block to the next,” Steinberg said. People’s frustrations are “absolutely justified” but Ho’s actions are a “performative distraction,” he said.

“The city needs real partnership from the region’s leaders, not politics and lawsuits,” he said.

City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood’s office has also repeatedly urged Ho to work with the city to address the issue, she said.

“It sadly appears the DA would rather point fingers and cast blame than partner to achieve meaningful solutions for our community,” Alcala Wood said in a statement.

Proposed Solutions and Ongoing Disputes

Ho, elected in 2022 after vowing on the campaign trail to address the city’s homelessness crisis, said he’s asked the city to share real-time data about available shelter beds with law enforcement.

“This is a rare opportunity — a rare opportunity — for us to effectuate meaningful, efficient means of getting the critically, chronically unhoused off the streets,” Ho said.

Ho said he supports a variety of solutions including enforcing laws and establishing new programs to provide services to people facing addiction or mental health issues. He said he supports a statewide bond measure that would go toward building more treatment facilities. Voters will weigh in on that measure next year.

The dispute between the district attorney and the city was further complicated by a lawsuit filed by a homeless advocacy group earlier this year that resulted in an order from a federal judge temporarily banning the city from clearing homeless encampments during extreme heat. That order is now lifted but the group wants to see it extended.

The attorney for the homeless coalition also filed a complaint with the state bar this month, saying Ho abused his power by pushing the city to clear encampments when the order was in place.

Testimonies and Criticisms

Ho’s news conference included testimony from residents who say the city is not providing resources to deal with homelessness. Emily Webb said people living in an encampment near her home have trespassed on her property, blocked her driveway, and threatened her family, but city officials have done little to clear the camp.

“We’re losing sleep and exhausted from this stress,” she said Tuesday. “We are beyond frustrated and no longer feel comfortable or safe in our home.”

Critics have said encampments are unsanitary and lawless, and block children, older residents, and disabled people from using public space such as sidewalks. They say allowing people to deteriorate outdoors is neither humane nor compassionate.

But advocates for homeless people say they can’t alleviate the crisis without more investment in affordable housing and services, and that camping bans and encampment sweeps unnecessarily traumatize homeless people.

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