More than eight years ago, homeless men and women set up tents and bedrolls in an empty lot near downtown Sacramento to challenge the city’s ordinance against camping outdoors for more than a day at a time.
On Monday, their legal saga finally began to play out in court. Homeless people are plaintiffs in a civil lawsuit against the city of Sacramento, arguing that the camping ordinance is selectively enforced against men and women who have nowhere but the outdoors to sleep. The city’s behavior toward homeless people, they argue, violates the constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.
In September 2009, following years of failed attempts to establish a “safe ground” where homeless people could sleep without fear of citation or being arrested, about two dozen people camped out in a vacant lot at C and 12th streets. They did so with the permission of the property’s owner, civil rights lawyer Mark Merin, who now represents them in court. Police cited the homeless campers, removed their gear and ultimately arrested them, informing them that they were in violation of an ordinance that prohibits camping for more than 24 hours on public or private property without a special permit.
The homeless plaintiffs argue that the city enforces the ordinance in a discriminatory manner, Merin said as the case got underway in a Sacramento Superior courtroom. In legal maneuvers prior to jury selection, he told Judge Christopher Krueger that others routinely violate the ordinance, including Boy Scout campers, children at Fairytale Town and people trying to score concert tickets outside of Golden 1 Center. But in those cases, police look the other way.
“This is not an anti-camping ordinance. It’s an anti-homeless ordinance,” Merin said, designed to drive homeless people “underground” and out of sight.
Chance Trimm, senior deputy city attorney, said officers typically are responding to complaints from the public when they cite people for illegal camping, enforcing an ordinance that has been in effect for 22 years. The city, he said, “did not violate the constitutional rights” of the eight individual plaintiffs listed in Merin’s suit, and has “no custom or practice” of selectively using the ordinance against homeless people.
Homeless plaintiffs are not seeking monetary damages. Instead, they are requesting a declaration and injunction from the court that would lead to the establishment of “safe grounds” where people could live outdoors without police interference.
About two dozen homeless people gathered at Monday’s court session. One, Virginia Evans, who said she lives in her car, sat quietly in her wheelchair with her burly service dog, Zippo, at her side. Others in the audience wore scraggly beards and mismatched clothing. They stored their carts, bicycles and other possessions in a designated place in front of the courthouse. Several homeless activists, including former Loaves & Fishes director Sister Libby Fernandez, also attended.
Attorneys for both sides on Monday debated whether the jury should be informed that Merin owned the land where the campers made their stand in 2009. The city wants to question Merin about his motivation and his lease agreement with the campers, Trimm said. Merin argued that naming him as the property owner would distract the jury, and could prejudice jurors one way or the other.
Trimm said jurors need to know that the camping protest “was a legal setup,” designed to facilitate a lawsuit. Merin “is a material witness” as the property owner, he added. “The motivation is important.”
Also at issue is whether Merin and his legal team will be able to detail the scale and face of homelessness in Sacramento, which public officials and advocates say has reached a crisis stage. At least 3,000 homeless people, and perhaps many more, are without permanent shelter in Sacramento County on any given night, according to a recent census, and those numbers have increased dramatically in recent years.
The city wants to limit testimony that speaks to the larger issue of homelessness in the city. “These are social issues, and don’t address the legal issues in this case,” Trimm said. But Merin argued that the scope of the problem is important because it speaks to the city’s lack of services for homeless people who have no choice but to live outdoors.
“There is no shelter available,” he said. “So the city has created a lot of criminals.”