As local church leaders raise funds to house homeless people this winter, Sacramento County supervisors backed off from a proposal Tuesday that would have restricted shelters operated by religious organizations.
The proposal would have limited shelters from housing more than 125 people and operating more than 30 days a year. Supervisors were originally scheduled to consider the restrictions as part of a larger zoning code overhaul but tabled the issue after complaints from homeless advocates.
Homeless activists strongly condemned the shelter restrictions, pointing out that supervisors during the recession asked the faith-based community to fill the void left by the county when supervisors cut funding for a shelter at Cal Expo. Dozens of congregations responded to that need, including those who run the Winter Sanctuary Program that provided shelter and food to more than 500 people last winter.
The Rev. Rick Cole of Capital Christian Center, who has been living on the streets of Sacramento for more than a week to raise money for the program, said he was going to speak out against the proposal Tuesday until learning the county had delayed the matter.
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Because of concerns raised by advocates, the county has turned to Sacramento Steps Forward, a nonprofit that coordinates various homeless programs, to hold a community meeting to address how the shelters might be regulated, said Planning Director Leighann Moffitt. The restrictions could come back to the Board of Supervisors in a revised form, she said.
County planners decided to introduce the restrictions when they were reviewing plans to overhaul the county’s zoning code, Moffitt said. Planners realized the code is silent about church-based shelters, thus depriving them of the legal right to operate, she said.
Planners wanted to provide that right, but also realized that restrictions are needed because some shelters bring homeless people into residential neighborhoods, Moffitt said.
Homeless advocates said the county shouldn’t stop them from providing shelter to anyone.
“People are homeless every night of the year,” said Joan Burke, advocacy director for Sacramento Loaves & Fishes. “It was an arbitrary proposal.”
Burke and other advocates said the proposal would have violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.
The federal law prohibits local governments from unreasonable restrictions on religious activity unless they are the least restrictive methods of furthering a “compelling governmental interest.”
The county’s proposal would have limited the Winter Sanctuary Program and Family Promise, a network of more than 30 churches that provide shelter and other services to the homeless, Burke said.
She also was concerned that if county supervisors approve restrictions, city of Sacramento leaders could pursue similar limits, and that would cut service provided by SafeGround Pilgrimage. She said communities often pass laws in response to regulations approved in neighboring communities.
After Citrus Heights and other communities passed restrictions on panhandling, Sacramento County approved one this year. The county has decided not to enforce the panhandling law since it is being challenged in federal court.