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Placer County laws respond to complaints about some homeless activities

Jamie Brody, 37, who has been homeless for a year and a half, packs her belongings at a popular transient encampment in Auburn on Aug. 6. Residents of the encampment were evacuating following a Placer County ordinance banning unauthorized camping on county land.
Jamie Brody, 37, who has been homeless for a year and a half, packs her belongings at a popular transient encampment in Auburn on Aug. 6. Residents of the encampment were evacuating following a Placer County ordinance banning unauthorized camping on county land. Sacramento Bee file

Placer County supervisors on Tuesday approved restrictions on aggressive panhandling and urinating and defecating in public in response to growing complaints about some homeless people in north Auburn.

Taking action on a package of “quality of life” ordinances, the board also unanimously voted for restrictions on graffiti, including a prohibition on minors buying spray paint in the unincorporated area of Placer County.

Other than the graffiti law, homeless people were the focus of the new ordinances, as county officials have received complaints from residents in north Auburn. In addition to the laws passed Tuesday, county officials say they will return to ask the board for restrictions on open containers of alcohol to stop public drinking.

“This is very, very necessary,” Gary Mapa told supervisors as he spoke in favor of the ban on aggressive panhandling and suggested further measures against people who give to the homeless. “We have people who are too generous. It creates more problems.”

Officials became concerned about homeless people when an encampment emerged at the Placer County Government Center in north Auburn and other areas in the county last year. Residents have alleged that homeless people have been drinking, urinating and panhandling in the unincorporated community of north Auburn, which runs along Highway 49 north of the Auburn city limits.

Supervisors responded to the camps by approving a ban on camping on most county property in July.

But county leaders also have begun trying to provide aid to homeless individuals by allowing the nonprofit Right Hand Auburn to operate a shelter in old Army barracks owned by the county. Supervisors voted 4-1 in October to provide a $265,000 subsidy to keep the shelter open 24/7 this winter.

That vote drew several dozen people, most of whom spoke against the financial support and alleged that the shelter contributed to a growing homeless population in the north Auburn area.

The restriction against aggressive panhandling is intended to protect the right of the homeless to solicit, but ensure public safety, county analyst Joel Joyce told the board Tuesday. County staff looked at similar laws in Sacramento County and Roseville to come up with a proposal that passed legal muster, he said.

Sacramento County was sued by a group of homeless activists after supervisors passed a ban on aggressive panhandling in 2014. The lawsuit was settled the following year when the activist group was satisfied the law would not prevent the homeless from selling newspapers.

Like Sacramento County’s law, Placer County’s prohibits solicitation in road medians, in front of ATMs and other public places. The point is to prevent panhandling in places where people would feel “intimidated into giving money,” Joyce said.

However, Placer County’s law is broader than Sacramento County’s in at least one respect: It prohibits solicitation “in any public place after dark.” Sacramento County’s law has no similar restriction.

Mark Merin, a Sacramento attorney who sued the county, said the restriction is overly broad and would not meet constitutional tests if challenged in court. He said he would take on such a lawsuit if approached by a group affected by the law.

Brigit Barnes, president of Right Hand Auburn, said the organization supports the law. She said the shelter has implemented a rule in which homeless people cannot receive shelter services if they’re seen panhandling. That’s because the community is upset about panhandling and the shelter wants to be a good neighbor, she said.

Placer County Supervisor Jack Duran said he supported the new restrictions with some reservations.

“If anyone thinks these are going to solve homelessness, they’re not,” he said. “If we want to address homelessness, we need ordinances that drive people to therapy and treatment.”

Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery said she thinks the rest of the board agrees with Duran. “This needs to be part of a larger discussion,” she said.

Under the new laws, public urination and defecation, along with aggressive panhandling, are misdemeanors or infractions. The laws are expected to take effect next month.

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