Sacramento homeless advocates fight camping ban

Mark Newton, left, Johnny McGee, center, and Carl Miller, right, walk past the  Capitol during a march Tuesday to the California Court of Appeal in Sacramento to protest a city ordinance that prohibits camping on public and private property.
Mark Newton, left, Johnny McGee, center, and Carl Miller, right, walk past the Capitol during a march Tuesday to the California Court of Appeal in Sacramento to protest a city ordinance that prohibits camping on public and private property. lsterling@sacbee.com

More than five years after setting up tents on a private lot in downtown Sacramento to challenge the city’s prohibition on camping, homeless people finally got their day in court Tuesday.

The case before the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento stems from a September 2009 protest, in which dozens of homeless people created an impromptu “tent city” on a vacant lot near 12th and C streets with the permission of the property owner. For about three weeks, police raided the encampment, seizing tents, sleeping bags and other property, and detaining and citing homeless people. The camp disbanded after city leaders including Mayor Kevin Johnson pledged to find a solution, including the possibility of establishing a legal “safe ground” campsite with basic services.

In the years since, civil rights attorney Mark Merin – who owned the property that spawned the “tent city” – and other advocates for homeless rights have challenged Sacramento’s anti-camping ordinance, arguing it is overly broad and violates the constitutional rights of men and women who are without permanent housing. The outcome of the case before the 3rd District Court of Appeal could set a precedent for others waging similar battles over the rights of homeless people to sleep outdoors without police interference, local advocates said.

On Tuesday, more than 75 people marched from the Loaves & Fishes homeless services complex on Sacramento’s North C Street to the court building on Capitol Mall in support of the 23 plaintiffs. Homeless people carrying backpacks, as well as pastors and business people, took seats inside the elegant courtroom, with its towering wooden pillars and velvet drapes, and listened to brief arguments before justices Harry E. Hull Jr., Vance W. Raye and Louis Mauro. The panel is expected to make a ruling within 60 days.

Merin, representing the homeless, told the justices that Sacramento’s ordinance is broader than any similar measure that has been addressed by U.S. courts. It applies to both public and private property, he noted, and makes anyone who is “living outdoors” technically in violation of the law, punishable by up to a year in county jail

“Every homeless person in Sacramento who is not accommodated in a shelter is necessarily, at all times, a criminal” based on the language of the ordinance, Merin said. That is true, he said, whether they are “eating, walking, standing in a public or a private place,” and be it day or night. He suggested that the law is selectively enforced on homeless people, in contrast to those who line up overnight for concert tickets or to buy the latest version of iPhones.

“That is punishment for a status, the status of being homeless,” he said. Such punishment, he argued, violates the constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

Senior Deputy City Attorney Chance Trimm countered that Sacramento’s ordinance is similar to one in Santa Ana that makes camping on designated public property a crime. A Sacramento Superior Court judge cited that case in dismissing Merin’s earlier challenge to the ordinance in 2010. It was that dismissal that prompted the constitutional challenge before the Court of Appeal.

Trimm took issue with Merin’s assertion that the city ordinance is overly broad. Sacramento enforces its ordinance only when people are using camping equipment in clear violation of the law, he said. On private land, Trimm said, the city rousts campers in response to complaints from property owners. “It is totally within our purview to make sure that property owners’ rights are not infringed upon by someone trespassing and camping on their property,” Trimm said.

Campers are cited “not because they are homeless, but because they are violating the anti-camping ordinance,” he said.

Merin, a longtime champion of homeless rights, allowed campers to set up tents five years ago specifically to draw attention to the quest for a legal “safe ground” for those without shelter. Police said they were responding to neighborhood complaints when they cited 32 campers and seized their tents, sleeping bags and other belongings. Many of the campers returned twice, and a third time, abandoning the site only after the city made the promise to work toward a permanent solution.

Five years later, little has changed, said Joan Burke, director of advocacy at Loaves & Fishes. Homeless people are still sleeping on park benches and church steps and in parks and alleys, and they are still getting arrested. Despite political support among several city leaders, she said, no agreement has been reached on where a “safe ground” offering simple cabins and basic services might be located.

“We are finally here, and we hope the Court of Appeal will overturn this Draconian ordinance,” Burke said, standing on the courthouse steps before the hearing.

Few communities around the country have solved the dilemma of homelessness, Burke acknowledged. Last month, San Jose city crews began dismantling one of the largest homeless encampments in the Bay Area. In Los Angeles, officials have been debating the city’s ban on people living in vehicles.

“We really believe that arresting people is not the answer,” said Burke. “The cure is having enough housing to go around, and we’re all still working on that.”

Call The Bee’s Cynthia Hubert, (916) 321-1082. Follow her on Twitter @Cynthia_Hubert.

A brief case history

August-September 2009: Homeless people set up camp in a vacant lot in downtown Sacramento in protest of the city’s anti-camping ordinance. They are arrested and their possessions seized.

February 2010: A Sacramento Superior Court judge dismisses the case challenging the ordinance, prompting advocates to file a civil rights case challenging its constitutionality.

January 20, 2015: The 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento hears arguments. A ruling is expected within 60 days.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee