Editorials

Does Sacramento want to house, or arrest, the homeless?

‘If you want to push us out, help us.’ Homeless man says he has no good options but the streets.

Xavier Cabano, 28, and friends were camped out on 14th Street, eating snacks and guarding a large cart used to store their clothes. He said his group has gotten more grief from police since residents began asking city officials to clear them out.
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Xavier Cabano, 28, and friends were camped out on 14th Street, eating snacks and guarding a large cart used to store their clothes. He said his group has gotten more grief from police since residents began asking city officials to clear them out.

Is Sacramento trying to arrest more homeless people simply because they can’t afford a place to live?

That’s what the city seems to be signaling by asking the Supreme Court to weigh in on a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that said prosecuting homeless people for camping violates their constitutional rights.

City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood said that, after a consultation with City Manager Howard Chan, she is adding the city to an amicus brief drafted on behalf of multiple California localities. It asks the U.S. Supreme Court to take up an appeal that’s been filed by the city of Boise, Idaho.

Alcala Wood said the court’s decision is “broad” and “creates confusion.”

“We need clarification,” she said.

Opinion

In 2009, six homeless people sued Boise over the city’s law against sleeping in public places. In 2018, the appeals court ruled in favor of the homeless, citing that punishing them for sleeping outside constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, violating the Eighth Amendment.

“As a result, just as the state may not criminalize the state of being ‘homeless in public places,’ the state may not ‘criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless – namely sitting, lying, or sleeping on the streets,’” wrote Judge Marsha Berzon, according to the Associated Press.

Following the ruling, Sacramento County park rangers stopped issuing citations to homeless people who were camping out, reported Sacramento Bee reporter Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks.

So why does the city now, as Yoon-Hendricks reported, want the Boise case to get a second look? Do they want to start issuing citations again? Do they want greater leeway in arresting people who have nowhere else to go?

Forcing the stress and expense of prosecution on people who can’t afford shelter only makes it more likely they will remain in dire circumstances. At a time when the city had finally seemed to be adopting a compassionate approach to its homelessness crisis, this move sends a different message.

The county of Sacramento is also supporting a Supreme Court review of the Boise case. But the impact of an appeal would be greater in the city, given the fact that most of the more than 5,500 homeless in the county live here.

It’s not clear whether the City Council supports the city attorney’s anti-homeless move. A city resolution authorizes Alcala Wood to participate in amicus briefs without involving the council. But she is appointed by and still answers to the council.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg said he doesn’t think the Boise ruling should be overturned, saying, “It should be, at most, clarified.”

“Fundamentally, the court is telling us to get serious about bringing people indoors. That imperative must be the driving force behind what we do,” he said in a statement. “Once we follow through as a city, a county and a state, we will have the moral and legal authority to break up tent encampments. People should not be living outdoors – period.”

Councilmember Jeff Harris said during the May 14 City Council meeting he supported the idea of Boise appealing the decision.

The city needs to demonstrate it will protect homeless people from arrests and prosecutions that violate their rights. Sacramento must find ways to house, not arrest, its homeless people. Please call the City Council today and urge it to remove the city from this brief.

  • Angelique Ashby, District 1: (916) 808-7001
  • Allen Warren, District 2: (916) 808-7002
  • Jeff Harris, District 3: (916) 808-7003
  • Steve Hansen, District 4: (916) 808-7004
  • Jay Schenirer, District 5: (916) 808-7005
  • Eric Guerra, District 6: (916) 808-7006
  • Rick Jennings, II, District 7: (916) 808-7007
  • Larry Carr, District 8: (916) 808-7008
  • Mayor Darrell Steinberg: (916) 808-5300
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