'If you want to push us out, help us.' Homeless man says he has no good options but the streets.
As a Sacramento police officer who focused on the city’s homeless population beginning in the late 1990s, Mark Zoulas had a powerful tool at his disposal: an ordinance that prohibited camping for extended periods in the city.
His initial goal, he said, was to “drive homeless people out” of downtown Sacramento by issuing citations and arresting them for illegal camping. But he quickly realized the strategy was flawed, he testified in court this week in a civil case that pits homeless campers against the city.
“You can’t enforce them out of homelessness,” Zoulas said. “Where do they go? Give them a ticket, and they’ll be back.”
Zoulas, now retired, was a key defense witness in a trial in Sacramento Superior Court that will test whether the city selectively enforces its camping ordinance against homeless men and women who sleep in parks, outside businesses and in other public and private spaces. A jury is expected to begin deliberating on the case as early as Wednesday afternoon.
The plaintiffs are homeless people who in 2009, following years of efforts to set up a “safe ground” where they could sleep without police interference, made a stand by setting up an illegal campground on a vacant lot on 12th and C streets. They argue that the city’s enforcement of its camping ordinance violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.
Civil rights attorney Mark Merin, who represents the group, charges that only homeless people get citations for illegal camping, while police look the other way when people sleep outdoors for other reasons including pursuing the latest electronic gadgets or coveted concert seats.
The city admits that officers rarely cite anyone other than homeless people for illegal camping, in part because other camping situations rarely draw complaints from the public. Complaints are the impetus for enforcing the ordinance, which has been in effect for 22 years, according to Zoulas and other witnesses.
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 one or more places where people without permanent shelter could sleep outdoors with basic services and without fear of being cited or arrested.
Testimony during the past two weeks has offered a glimpse into what it is like to be homeless in Sacramento, and the city’s struggles to deal with a growing population of people without shelter. Several homeless or formerly homeless people testified about their experiences sleeping outside, and police officers described their mostly futile efforts to respond to complaints about loitering, camping and garbage.
The city is struggling to establish shelters and services for an estimated 3,000 people who a recent census showed are homeless in Sacramento on any given night.
A psychiatrist who has treated homeless patients told the jury this week that street life is rife with stresses, which can lead to or aggravate addictions, anxiety and paranoia. The constant threat of citations and arrests, he said, promotes severe sleep deprivation. “Life on the streets makes it difficult to maintain good mental and physical health,” testified Michael Meeks, a UC Davis professor of medicine who has worked with clients at the Loaves & Fishes homeless services agency.
For years, homeless people and their advocates worked with the city and county to find an acceptable location for a “safe ground” with basic services, they testified. “It would be kind of like a KOA campground for homeless people,” with bathrooms, showers and outreach services, said David Moss, a pastor in the United Methodist Church who supported the movement. But it never came to pass, and in 2009 the C Street encampment sprouted on a vacant lot owned by Merin, the civil rights lawyer.
“We thought that this action might be a way to break through,” Moss testified. Although Moss has never been homeless, “it was a calling for me to be there,” he said. “Jesus Christ was homeless.”
Police cited more than a dozen campers, removed their gear and ultimately arrested them, telling them they were in violation of a city ordinance that prohibits extended camping without a special permit. The campers dispersed after former Mayor Kevin Johnson promised he would work with them toward their goals.
Chance Trimm, senior deputy city attorney, attempted to portray the C Street encampment as a “setup” designed to pave the way for a lawsuit to challenge the city ordinance. He presented witnesses who said that, contrary to the plaintiffs claims, the camp was dirty, noisy and disruptive to the neighborhood.
Pedro Hernandez, whose home is adjacent to the lot occupied by the campers off and on for about six weeks, said they made life miserable for him and his wife, who has since died. Hernandez, 80, said campers harassed him, had dogs that barked into the night, and threw trash on his property. “What about the civil rights of the Hernandez family?” he asked on the witness stand.
Police attempted to persuade the C Street campers to leave several times, but they refused, Zoulas testified, so officers were forced to arrest them. “I didn’t want to do it,” he said, adding that some of Sacramento’s homeless men and women had become trusted friends. “When the time came and we took those people out of there and they went to jail, I felt terrible. But eventually, we had no choice.”
Merin called several witnesses who testified to camping in various areas of the city, without special permits, for one to four days at a time without police concern. On a parcel of property along the American River, scouts, students and families have for decades camped overnight and during weekends, administrators of the property said.
One woman testified that she regularly commutes to Sacramento from Wheatland to take advantage of “Black Friday” sales at Best Buy. She and as many as 20 others have brought tents, bedrolls and blankets and “camped out in front of the store for two or three days to get really good deals on big TVs” and other electronic items, she said.
Police did visit, she said, but never bothered them.
“Once or twice, each time we were there, they came to check up on us,” she said. “No one ever said that it was a problem.”