It’s just past sunrise and the men and women have begun to break camp on the plaza outside the Sacramento County Courthouse. They know before long Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies will tell them to pack up their tents and bedrolls, gather their belongings and move on.
The ritual plays out much the same every day. The sheriff’s deputies who provide security at downtown Sacramento’s Gordon D. Schaber Courthouse and the 31 homeless people who were camped on four sides underneath its overhang-covered landings on a recent Monday know all too well the cycle of rest, roust, get up and get moving.
From dusk until dawn, the building becomes an encampment for dozens of the city’s homeless, frustrating everyone from judges, court employees and administrators to front-line deputies and jurors to the contracted maintenance crews whose job it is to clean up what dozens of people without a place to call home leave each night.
“The county does not own this building. The city of Sacramento does not own this building,” said Sacramento Superior Court Judge Maryanne Gilliard, who heads the court’s safety committee and is an outspoken voice on the camping issue. “In 2002, the state took ownership of about 450 courthouses, including the Sacramento County Courthouse, so ultimately, it is their responsibility to provide for a safe and clean environment for which our public can come and seek justice, service jurors and have their cases heard in court.”
Gilliard said the Judicial Council of California, which took over courts from county control during the last decade, has neglected the courthouse and ignored court officials’ requests for funding, resources to deal with the issue and protection of its property by the state’s law enforcement agency, the California Highway Patrol.
Gilliard wants to see CHP patrol the courthouse after hours as it does at the state Capitol and other state buildings. She also wants a fence or other barrier erected to discourage campers from entering the grounds.
“We are calling upon the state to step up, do their job and make this building a priority because it is a priority for the community,” Gilliard said. “They have the responsibility to protect state property, and this is state property. Up until this point, they have not – for whatever reason – made this courthouse a priority. We are hoping that that attitude changes, that we get some direct assistance.”
Sgt. Bob DiMiceli works out of the CHP Capital Protection Section’s offices in downtown Sacramento’s Southside Park neighborhood. Its 96 officers patrol nearly 280 state buildings where more than 40,000 state employees work, including the state Capitol and Governor’s Mansion. DiMiceli bristled at assertions that the downtown courthouse is not a priority for the patrol.
“We are actively working with other agencies” to address the issue, the sergeant said, calling Gilliard’s claims “highly inaccurate.”
DiMiceli said he became aware of the encampment in an April meeting with court, police and Judicial Council officials, remarking that at the meeting “there wasn’t a feeling that we weren’t taking this seriously.”
Sacramento Superior Court, Sacramento city officials, and county and state agencies, including the Judicial Council, continue to negotiate how they plan to address the issue. Meantime, dozens of homeless people have set up camp at the courthouse moved in part by tighter city restrictions on camping, downtown construction, a dearth of affordable housing and storm-swollen rivers brought on by a drought-busting winter – the latest location in a “moving shell game,” in the words of one advocate, across the city’s downtown.
The building’s relative safety, security and proximity to services also attract campers.
But court officials point to the trash – and worse – left behind in areas that, hours later, are normally lined with lunch tables for court employees and the hundreds who visit the courthouse.
Cleaning crews and deputies say they have found intravenous needles at the makeshift campsites. Pride Industries’ crews pressure-clean the sidewalks and clear away garbage to prepare for the day’s business. Pride Industries, the court’s maintenance contractor since 2011, spends upward of two hours each morning cleaning up after the previous night’s camp, she said.
“That’s my No. 1 complaint. The amount of urine, feces and trash – it’s a public health and safety issue. Three thousand people come here a day. They want to sit outside. They can’t sit next to human waste,” said Debbie Moynier, courthouse facilities director, who has taken to cataloging the more egregious examples to make her case to officials at Judicial Council of California.
Two blocks to the south, the Sacramento Public Library struggles with a similar issue, spending more than $25,000 last fiscal year to pressure-wash outside and clean up incidents inside, officials there told The Bee. Many homeless people, library officials said, see its restroom facilities as a lone option.
“The Judicial Council is aware of the issues being faced by the city of Sacramento in relation to homelessness and its impact on the courthouse,” said a statement issued by the council, adding that it had “consulted with local authorities and law enforcement and is awaiting actions by Sacramento authorities.”
Moynier understands the building’s appeal for the campers – even as she struggles to tackle its effects.
“The design of this building, raised from the street, offers protection. The overhang makes it an ideal place for camping,” Moynier said. “We’re trying to manage the situation, moving them out earlier to get the building presentable before people come in. That’s all we can do.”
On a Monday in late April, Donna Grayson was among the homeless people at the courthouse. She was folding her bedding and gathering her belongings on an outdoor table near the courthouse entrance as a pair of deputies strode her way.
“Coverage,” Grayson said when asked why she stays at the courthouse. “Plus, they moved us from everywhere else. When we were at City Hall, they told us we need to stop staying there. They don’t tell us it’s us, it’s the necessities that we have to carry.”
Sheriff’s officials say the problems start anew each day.
“It diverts court security resources to a daily problem that can only be managed by court security. … Each and every day court security is presented with the same issue when they come to work,” said Sacramento County sheriff’s Sgt. Tony Turnbull, a department spokesman.
“The frustration is not unique to any one person or organization,” Turnbull said, calling it a “systematic problem that affects everyone who works and does business” at the courthouse, adding that his department is working with court leaders and others toward a “sustainable solution.”
Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, has some short-term solutions: hiring one or two campers to keep the site free of trash and provide nearby portable restrooms away from the court grounds. Erlenbusch said he hadn’t been contacted by court officials.
“I don’t blame people for camping on that site. It makes sense that people would want to make that a site. Why not hire a couple of campers to help police that area?” Erlenbusch said. “It’s shameful that there is no alternative but to use the city’s streets and alleys as a urinal. It’s dehumanizing.”
The camping and the problems that have come with it had begun to reach a tipping point in the last six months, prompting the increased patrols. Last November, an agitated camper pinned a Pride Industries worker against a wall for cleaning too close to his camp, Moynier said.
In February, a hazardous materials team was dispatched to the building.
“Some human waste is easy to pick up,” Moynier said. “Some isn’t.”
Chris Bunch, a Pride facilities manager, called the climate at Sacramento County Courthouse “a hostile situation,” one that has taken a toll on the relationship with Pride’s employers at the Judicial Council. Pride’s contract with the Judicial Council runs until Sept. 30.
Bunch’s crews are at the courthouse five days a week compared to the one to two days a crew is normally scheduled for landscaping duty.
“No one wants to own the problem. It’s my people at risk; it’s my costs being incurred. Crowd control and medical waste removal are not in my area,” Bunch said.
In recent weeks, Sacramento County sheriff’s court deputies have visibly boosted their presence with walking patrols throughout the day and again in late afternoon as judges, employees and others leave for home.
The deputies’ increased presence comes apace of Sacramento Superior Court and Sacramento County sheriff’s talks with a variety of agencies, including Sacramento police, Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office and Department of Human Assistance, the city’s Homeless Services Division and Sacramento Steps Forward, Turnbull said.
Visits by a Homeless Services Division manager and Sacramento Steps Forward navigators followed to gather information from the campers and “strategize some more on what we can do for the persons around the courthouse,” Turnbull said.
Erlenbusch said options are limited in the face of what he said is a severe lack of affordable housing in the city. Vacancy, he said, is at 2 percent.
“The navigators are stuck – there’s no place (for the homeless) to navigate to. All navigators are having an extremely tough time placing people from the camps into housing,” Erlenbusch said. “That’s why we need an all-year shelter. This moving shell game of City Hall to the (Sacramento Public Library) to the courthouse – we need to try to impress that we need more affordable shelter.”
Meantime, the court’s negotiations with the agencies, law enforcement and community leaders regarding security and other issues related to the campers have also accelerated in recent weeks, largely spearheaded by Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lloyd Connelly, the court’s interim chief executive officer and a former state lawmaker.
But courthouse officials have been reluctant to share details, saying only negotiations are ongoing and an agreement remains weeks away.