Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Police aren’t ‘criminalizing’ the homeless

Ivan Dixon is one of the homeless protesters outside City Hall. They have accused police of “criminalizing” camping. City policymakers say it’s a public health issue.
Ivan Dixon is one of the homeless protesters outside City Hall. They have accused police of “criminalizing” camping. City policymakers say it’s a public health issue. aseng@sacbee.com

One of the great misconceptions in Sacramento is that the city is “criminalizing the homeless.” This is a claim often made by people with political agendas. Some are seeking to abolish Sacramento’s anti-camping ordinance, which is designed to prevent people from setting up camps anywhere they wish.

The ordinance is about protecting people and property within the city limits. Protesters camped at City Hall for more than a month, however, are challenging the law, saying it unfairly discriminates against the homeless.

This being Sacramento, where political slogans are hatched and exported statewide, the “criminalizing” concept is being aggressively promoted, an incomplete narrative spread around a liberal city often flummoxed by its homeless problems.

Regardless of your stance on the issue, most of us rely on the police to be the front line when we encounter a situation with the homeless that needs immediate attention. According to Sacramento police statistics, there were 36,074 calls for service to police last year that were directly related to homeless and transient people.

If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. Calls related to homeless people represented slightly more than 10 percent of all the service calls the Sacramento Police Department fielded last year. Nearly half of those homeless calls for police service – 17,061 – were initiated by Sacramento residents. (The rest were initiated by police.)

When homelessness is debated in Sacramento, voices critical of the police often are heard loud and clear. So where are the business leaders, prominent residents and everyday citizens who are calling the cops to deal with homeless people and who could provide another side to this story?

Good question. Let’s call them “The Silent Thousands.”

A “heat map” compiled by Sacramento Police Department shows that homeless calls are, with a few exceptions, centered in downtown, midtown and North Sacramento neighborhoods. Roughly 20 months ago, Sacramento police committed to a more holistic approach when dealing with the homeless. Its “Impact Team” has sought to more effectively connect the homeless population with mental health and substance abuse services.

Today, the first instinct of Sacramento cops is to try to get a homeless person help with housing or treatment. “We realized you can’t arrest your way out of this issue,” said Sgt. Darryl Bryan of the Sacramento Police Department.

Some Sacramento residents wring their hands about how the city is doing nothing about the homeless. Meanwhile, city officials do a poor job of telling their story about how they are addressing the issue.

We realized you can’t arrest your way out of (the homeless) issue.

Sgt. Darryl Bryan, Sacramento Police Department

Last week, the debate took a surreal turn. A pair of videos supporting a 60-day moratorium on enforcing the anti-camping ordinance in Sacramento were posted on YouTube. They contained threats against Sacramento and were linked to the hacker group Anonymous. Presumably, city websites would be compromised by Anonymous hackers unless the camping ban is lifted and Sacramento stopped “criminalizing” the homeless.

Distinguished by members wearing Guy Fawkes masks, Anonymous has previously been linked to worldwide cyberattacks on government, corporate and religious websites. However, police cannot say for certain if the videos were posted by someone belonging to the Anonymous effort.

This much is known, though: The city of Sacramento spends $13.6 million annually on homeless services, according to city records. That’s a quarter of what Portland, Ore., reportedly allocates each year, but double what Denver, Colo. budgets. Approximately $6.6 million goes toward support services and the rest – $7 million – is spent on “mitigating” the community impacts of homelessness.

Last week, protesters at City Hall called the $7 million expenditures a waste of taxpayers dollars. Instead of “mitigating” homeless issues, why not spend more money on services?

It sounds good until you actually ride around the city with the police officers responsible for the mitigation. For example, Sacramento cops oversaw the collection and disposal of 3,600 cubic yards of trash and waste last year from homeless camps, which included thousands of needles and human feces.

Mitigation costs are directly related to the service calls police respond to every day. If you eliminate those, you are telling downtown, midtown and North Sacramento residents not to bother calling police when their homes and business are affected by homeless people.

It costs $2.3 million to have Sacramento cops respond to “transients” across the city. Sacramento also spends $4.2 million to have the Fire Department respond to calls related to the homeless.

In addition, the city pays $400,000 to provide emergency shelter for homeless single men and women with HIV/AIDS. It spends $250,000 for an operational subsidy for 38 permanent supportive housing units for chronically homeless people. The city also spends $708,351 for comprehensive alcohol treatment for homeless people.

These monies are not included in what Sacramento County spends annually: $18 million on services for the homeless and $30 million on mental health services.

Sacramento is a magnet for homeless people. When cities around the county bring homeless people to the county jail in downtown Sacramento, many of those people stick around after they are released. The same goes for homeless patients brought to midtown hospitals for substance abuse treatment.

Officers say they often are turned down when they offer services to homeless people. However, Sacramento Steps Forward is finding success connecting people with help, even City Hall protesters. Since Dec. 8, the organization has made contact with 61 individuals at the site; 37 are now on the list for permanent housing.

Police had been warning City Hall protesters about the anti-camping ordinance and offering them services for weeks before dozens of officers swept the area on Jan. 2. Between that day and Saturday, police made 11 arrests and issued seven citations at the City Hall protest. According to Deputy Chief Ken Bernard, several suspects were arrested multiple times.

The police know that arrests won’t solve homelessness. It’s a larger societal issue that demands more supportive housing and health services. But we should remember that the cops are often the ones doing the dirty work that few in Sacramento want to discuss – unless they are picking up the phone to call 911 about a homeless problem in their midst.

Following up on a video threat posted the previous day, on Friday, Jan 8, 2016, the hacker group Anonymous posted another video saying certain unspecified actions would be taken against Sacramento if the city does not lift its ban on urban camping

The hacker/activist group Anonymous, taking issue with Sacramento's ban on urban camping, released a video on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016, threatening unspecified action and saying the group will "bring the formidable talent of Anonymous to your city.”

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