Marcos Bretón

Confronting the complexities of homelessness

Michelle Gillard, 53, pulls a tarp, part of the homeless protest outside City Hall on Monday, which seeks the right to camp anywhere.
Michelle Gillard, 53, pulls a tarp, part of the homeless protest outside City Hall on Monday, which seeks the right to camp anywhere. rbyer@sacbee.com

It was painfully cold Monday afternoon in front of City Hall. No matter which way you turned, wind knifed through your clothing and into your bones.

How cold must it feel here at dawn? The answer to that question was written on the faces of a group of homeless advocates who have been experiencing near-freezing temperatures and rain while camping in front of the city building since Dec. 8.

“We are protesting the criminalization of homelessness,” said James “Faygo” Clark, who has emerged as a spokesman for the small group of people participating in sustained protests in the shadow of the council chambers.

Clark, 35, has said he was among those arrested in the early morning hours on Jan. 2 when nearly 50 police officers converged on the government complex to enforce a city ordinance that prohibits urban camping. Looking weather-beaten and tired, Clark, who is homeless, said Monday he has been offered housing options in the past but has turned them down. He said he didn’t want to take a space from someone who is needier than him.

The protesters continue to be in clear violation of the city’s anti-camping ordinances, but that’s the point. They want to abolish what they see as an unjust law. They see their protest as a way to highlight the lack on emergency housing for those living on Sacramento’s streets. And they have a high-powered lawyer on their side.

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In one sense, Clark and his fellow protesters are right. There is not enough housing for homeless people in Sacramento County. Despite improving efforts to deal with the issue, an emergency housing shortfall in these cold winter months remains.

“This is the most vexing situation we encounter on a daily basis,” said Steve Hansen, the city councilman whose district includes downtown neighborhoods where homeless people seek refuge. “The more resources you pour into it, the tighter the knot gets. You get to where you can’t untangle it.”

Hansen said homelessness is an issue rife with critics and agendas but few easy answers, no matter the amount of money and time committed to it. He bristled at the suggestion that the city is criminalizing homelessness. “To suggest that misrepresents the facts,” he said.

Still, allowing people to camp in public spaces is not a long-term solution to homelessness. Finding them stable housing and help – including mental-health services and drug treatment – is. And after years of changing course or cutting services, the city and county have settled on a strategy: Funding Sacramento Steps Forward, a nonprofit coordinating homeless services efforts in the county. That effort has been up and running for a little more than a year and is already proving effective.

Each day, the organization dispatches workers armed with iPads into the community. Using wireless technology, these “navigators” connect homeless people with the services they need. At the same time, statisticians with the group have been auditing homeless services countywide. Later this year, Sacramento Steps Forward plans to present its findings publicly and develop a plan that will help plug service holes and trim inefficiencies.

Sacramento Steps Forward won’t comment on the City Hall protest. Maintaining neutrality on political issues keeps the group focused on its mission of getting homeless people off the streets and into supportive housing, organizers said.

That mission – endorsed by the city, county and local law enforcement agencies – runs counter to what the City Hall protesters want. In fact, the current protest ultimately confuses what should be a singular community message. It only takes a few minutes of standing with the protesters to realize that they should be accepting offers for housing instead of turning them down to make a political point.

The bottom line is that it’s not safe for people to be camping on the streets. It’s not sanitary. It’s not humane.

There has been a long-standing legal challenge seeking to void the city anti-camping ordinance. Mark Merin, a prominent lawyer in Sacramento, maintains that the city created the law to target homeless people. In February, the 3rd District Court of Appeal mostly dismissed Merin’s lawsuit, which challenged the constitutionality of the ordinance. However, the court left open the possibility that the ordinance is not evenly enforced, which would violate the equal protection provisions of the U.S. and California constitutions.

“Most cities have camping ordinances, and they’ve been deemed constitutional,” said Chance Trimm, a lawyer with the city of Sacramento.

Securing safe housing for homeless people and the anti-camping ordinance are two different issues. “Having people sleeping on the street won’t do one thing to improve their lives,” Hansen said. “Changing ordinances does nothing to get people off the street and into treatment.”

There may be more help on the horizon. On Monday, a bipartisan group of state senators announced an ambitious $2 billion proposal to help fight homelessness in California. Former Senate president pro tem and current Sacramento mayoral candidate Darrell Steinberg helped design the plan, which would provide 10,000 to 14,000 housing units.

They are much needed. A report compiled by the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness found that 604 homeless people had died on county streets between January 2002 and June 2014. Some died from natural causes while homeless. Others from substance abuse. Many died violent deaths.

“It’s getting worse,” said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. “You are starting to see homeless people in communities where you had never seen them before.”

The answer is for Sacramento County to commit fully to getting people off the streets and riverbanks. Allowing people people to live in tents only creates more public health issues. It only creates more chances of people dying on streets that can feel cold any time of the year.

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