For more than a month, the scene outside of Sacramento City Hall has been the same.
Battered tents. Protesters, many of them homeless, shouting about their “right to exist” at passing cars. City Council members dismissing protesters’ demands to repeal a ban on urban camping and instead provide more services for the homeless.
Now, a hunger strike is in the works.
While we admire the protesters’ passion, their actions are, at best, misguided and, at worst, a distraction. Repealing the camping ban won’t begin to get the most troubled homeless people off the streets. Nor will it help Sacramento as a whole.
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Instead, city and county leaders must focus on the bigger question: What’s the best way to balance helping the homeless with providing a decent quality of life for residents?
No one deserves to die alone in a filthy tent two miles from a shelter that’s full to the brim. But no one should have to shovel human feces off his lawn every week, either.
“This is about what kind of society we want,” said Councilman Steve Hansen, a member of the mayor’s task force on homelessness. “Sacrificing the quality of life that we’ve worked so hard to nurture back isn’t the answer.”
Hansen represents midtown – the area most affected by homelessness – and he’s right when he says Sacramento’s continued renaissance depends on attracting residents who want to feel safe.
The camping ban is more than just a vehicle for arresting homeless people, as the protesters assert. It’s a way for residents to deal with people they spot sleeping in a doorway or pitching a tent on a sidewalk. The ordinance is a tool for police to keep the peace.
That said, the penalties homeless people face for this and other minor crimes are alarming, as are the rates at which they’re being meted out. Here, protesters have a point.
A report from UC Berkeley found that illegal camping citations have surged in recent years. Meanwhile, Sacramento’s homeless population has remained relatively flat.
The system is a revolving door. Homeless people get arrested and are usually out in a day. Once they’re released, many forget to show up for their court dates, their minds and their memories wracked by untreated mental illness and addiction. A judge then issues a warrant for their arrest. The fines and additional penalties rack up – until police nab them again, usually for committing the same type of offense.
If there is a “criminalization of the homeless,” as protesters say, then this is it. In a recent survey, the Sacramento Coalition to End Homelessness found that 80 percent of respondents had been to jail. It’s a waste of time, energy and money, and it must stop.
If Sacramento is going to enforce its anti-camping ordinance, the city – with more help from the county – must think long term and do more. Instead of constantly arresting and releasing homeless people, making it even harder for them to re-enter society, the goal should be to help them while they’re in custody.
Consider that, according to the coalition, most homeless people who go to jail are released back onto the same downtown streets because of a lack of shelter beds. Others who avoid getting arrested continue to camp outside simply because they have nowhere else to go.
Also, more effort should be made to get homeless people into diversion programs, whether that’s for mental health or addiction treatment. Too many men and women are falling through the cracks.
All of this will require funding, and a new level of cooperation between the city and the county, which is already starting to happen and should continue. A proposed $2 billion state bond to house homeless mentally ill people would help, too. It’s a balancing act. But it’s the only way to finally stop the revolving door of homelessness.