9th Circuit Court takes control of county’s authority to crack down on homeless camps

By: Sacramento County Supervisor Sue Frost
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In September of this year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision in the case Martin v. Boise, which ruled local governments cannot cite or arrest anyone for sleeping on public property when adequate shelter beds are unavailable. Because of that ruling, Sacramento County Parks rangers stopped enforcing the County anti-camping ordinance at our regional parks and dependent park districts. On Oct. 16, the Board of Supervisors discussed the implications of this decision, so I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to update you on the subject.

As soon as I heard that our park rangers had stopped enforcement of our anti-camping ordinance, I reached out to my constituents and asked for their input. There were some great suggestions, but most of those suggestions had some critical flaw that is not immediately obvious. Drug free requirements are not allowed because we cannot place any conditions on the people who are offered housing. Designating certain areas of the parkway for camping is not allowed because we have to give access to all locations. Creating a “tent city” does not lower the amount of shelter we need to build in order to start enforcing our ordinance again, because in order for a unit to count as shelter it must meet certain requirements like a minimum amount of space and running water.

This is an issue that we need to get used to for a while. The ruling is being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but since no stay of enforcement has been issued, the court decision is the law of the land (for now). I could easily see this decision being overturned, but we are years away from that ever happening, and we can’t hold our breath waiting for that possibility. We have to act now and deal with this issue.

The obvious solution is to build shelter, because if enough shelter is built than we can go back to enforcing our ordinance. We have been actively doing that through our scattered site shelter model, which is where we utilize currently vacant single-family properties that house individuals in need of shelter. The houses are spread out so there is only a small amount in each community, each house has 24-hour in-house monitoring, and the residents get connected with the social services they need to fix the problems that were keeping them homeless.

Earlier this year California allocated nearly $20 million in funding that Sacramento County and Sacramento City are eligible to receive, just so long as we declare a “shelter crisis” in Sacramento County. So on Oct. 16, Sacramento County made this declaration, which doesn’t really obligate Sacramento County to anything new, given the Ninth Circuit decision.

Among other things, this money will get us significantly more homes for the scattered site shelter model I described above, increased family shelter capacity, and the creation of a program that connects homeless youths with families who want to house them on a short-term basis.

On top of that, if Proposition 2 passes in November, Sacramento County will be able to allocate more dollars to housing for the homeless, that were previously dedicated to mental health for the homeless.

Unfortunately, I do not think this will get us the amount of housing needed to go back to enforcing our ordinance, and neither do my colleagues on the Board of Supervisors. We told staff that we are not satisfied with the status quo, and want them to report back to us on if we can more rigorously enforce along our parkways. We have health and safety concerns for the people trying to utilize the parkways, and also concerns about the environmental damage being done. In 2018 alone, we have removed more than 6.5 million pounds of trash from our parkways, and that’s not acceptable.

I have compassion for the homeless, which is why I have authorized funding multiple times now for new homeless programs – but I also have compassion for the residents of our county who want to use our parks/parkways for recreational purposes. I’m committed to finding a solution to this impasse our community is in, and will update you as we work through it.

Sue Frost represents the 4th District, which includes all or part of the communities of Citrus Heights, Folsom, Orangevale, Antelope, Rio Linda, Elverta, Gold River, Rancho Murieta, North Highlands, Carmichael, Foothill Farms, Fair Oaks, and Rancho Cordova.