Homeless Sacramento residents blocking sidewalks or business entrances could face misdemeanor charges as part of a new proposal the city council will consider in August.
Proponents say the changes would allow the city to evict people who refuse to clean up their belongings or let others pass. Opponents of the change say it would further criminalize the homeless.
“We’re not asking people to leave town or move three blocks away,” said board member Harris, who presented the proposal. “The goal is not to embarrass the homeless. The goal is to provide some kind of convenience for anyone who needs to use the sidewalk, which is a legal right in the city.
The proposal would amend the existing sidewalk ordinance by increasing the penalty for changing it from an infraction to a misdemeanor. The amendments would also establish that people cannot block entrances to buildings and must allow at least one path at least four feet wide on sidewalks. Instead of just the police, the law would also allow the city manager or a designated person to enforce the ordinance.
City staff could still modify the proposal, which was approved on June 21 in the Law and Legislation Committee.
Council members Jay Schenirer and Katie Valenzuela expressed their concerns at this meeting about raising the level of violation to a misdemeanor. But Harris argued that the proposal is moot without enforcement.
Currently, police, code enforcement or the Department of Community Response are asking people to clear a walking path and give chances to comply. If the person refuses to move, police give a violation but cannot force people to move, city staff said at the committee meeting. And Harris said it deters people from entering businesses or forces people to walk down the street.
“We need a tool to be able to manage our sidewalks to ensure safe passage for everyone,” Harris said. “For the homeless and housed, for children, for the elderly and for those confined to wheelchairs.”
Some advocates for homeless residents say the proposal does not address underlying issues. People are sleeping on sidewalks because they have nowhere to go, said Angela Hassell, executive director of Sacramento Loaves & Fishes.
Sacramento has approximately 3,400 shelter beds to serve the more than 9,200 homeless people living in the county, according to the Homeless count in 2022. These shelter spaces are most often full, and sometimes people rest under the windows to stay out of the rain or heat, Hassell added.
Rather than penalizing people, Hassell said she’d rather see Sacramento put more energy into creating opportunities like opening more secure campgrounds.
Misdemeanor charges can also add barriers to people getting housing, Hassell said, because rental applications typically require background checks.
“I know that [the proposal] was not explained as being some kind of attack on the homeless or criminalization of homelessness,” Hassell said. “But whether or not that’s the intended outcome, with something like this, that will be the outcome.”
Sacramento proposal part of homeless policy trend
The proposed sidewalk ordinance follows a trend of local proposals criminalizing homeless people, said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness.
Erlenbusch said the proposal echoed Sacramento County’s pending ordinance barring camping near areas deemed “critical infrastructure”and a state assembly bill that would have expedited the removal campsites along the American River Parkway. This bill was withdrawn from committee by its author, Assemblyman Ken Cooley (D-Rancho Cordova).
“To me, these kinds of actions are a sad admission by the city and county government that their public policies have failed because they have done little to end and prevent homelessness. shelter,” Erlenbusch said.
Erlenbusch and other homelessness advocates say the city should take a trauma-informed approach instead. Dispatching law enforcement can trigger a fight or flight response in people, he said, referring to the coalition’s 2021 campaign. negative childhood experiences report.
With multidisciplinary teams, including peer advocates and staff who have experienced homelessness, Erlenbusch said the city can help homeless residents more effectively.
The city created the Department of Community Response two years ago to divert police calls to specialized professionals. But the city hasn’t given the department enough resources, according to council member Katie Valenzuela, who represents the central city of Sacramento where homelessness is most visible.
When the council considers the proposal, Valenzuela said she would like to discuss the process of asking people to leave the sidewalks. In the final amended order, Valenzuela said council should specify potential measures such as the city helping homeless residents move their belongings to a warehouse or other location.
She said coding requirements, and even time allowances, can help prevent the issuance of torts.
“These people don’t have vehicles and they don’t get around very easily,” Valenzuela said. “We need to give people the time and the opportunity to correct before they jump in and say, ‘OK, now we’re going to penalize you this way.'”
Valenzuela added that she still prefers to remove the tort from the proposed changes.
Council is due to discuss the sidewalk ordinance at the August 9 regular meeting.
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