Thu, 30 Nov 2023

Sacramento DA sues city over homelessness

20 Sep 2023, 01:32 GMT+10

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) - Sacramento County District Attorney Thien Ho sued the city of Sacramento on Tuesday over the homelessness issue, accusing the city of failing to enforce its own laws.

The suit, in Sacramento County Superior Court, came in the wake of a letter he sent Mayor Darrell Steinberg in August about the homelessness crisis. Citing reports of hypodermic needles on a soccer field and kids walking through human waste to school, Ho demanded action from the city in 30 days.

That deadline passed earlier this month.

"You might be asking yourself, how did we get here?" Ho said during a Tuesday press conference. He added: "The community is at a breaking point."

Flanked by community members, Ho said the city must be held accountable to the same laws applied to its people. Residents face harassment from homeless encampments. People have been threatened, watched the unhoused deal and use drugs and witnessed sex acts. At 3 a.m. Tuesday, someone set some bushes outside the courthouse on fire.

"How did we get here?" Ho asked. "Enough is enough."

Sacramento has seen an erosion of everyday life, Ho said, claiming people no longer feel safe. The unhoused population has grown over 250% over the past seven years Steinberg has been mayor. Sacramento now has more homeless people than San Francisco.

"We need to get people off the streets," Ho said. "Living on the streets is not compassionate for the housed or the unhoused."

Stephen Walton, one of the people flanking Ho during the press conference, said his family has lived in the Del Paso Heights and Old North Sacramento area for almost 80 years. People in his community have compassion for the unhoused. However, that compassion must be balanced with public safety.

"We've watched open drug dealing, drug usage, human trafficking and prostitution," Walton said.

When someone contacts 311, a nonemergency phone number for the city, they're told nothing can be done, Walton said.

Emily Webb, who lives on the southern edge of the city core, said she's asked multiple times for the city to remove a homeless encampment near her house. At one point, someone's belongings blocked her driveway for weeks. People have used drugs in her front yard.

Over three dozen calls to the city resulted in canned responses and no action, Webb said.

"We've been threatened and yelled at," she added.

Attorney Ognian Gavrilov also stood with Ho during Tuesday's announcement and said he filed a lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of small business owners and residents.

"It's getting worse by the day and no solutions are being presented to any of us," Gavrilov said.

Gavrilov's clients claim a decree from Steinberg stops police and other authorities from clearing dangerous encampments that block sidewalks and pollute neighborhoods.

Ho said he wants city officials to enforce existing law.

"This is a rare opportunity for us to effectuate meaningful, efficient means of getting the critically, chronically unhoused off the street," he said.

The district attorney outlined short-, mid- and long-term measures he wants implemented. To achieve a long-term goal of 10,000 more mental health beds and an expanded conservatorship law, and a mid-term goal of a citation-based method of getting unhoused people into treatment, the city must have compliance and enforcement of existing law.

The city currently has a sidewalk ordinance in place, as well as an ordinance focused on critical infrastructure.

The sidewalk ordinance allows for clearing space to provide an unobstructed path. The critical infrastructure ordinance prohibits camps on or near certain areas.

"What comes next is that this must end," Ho said. He added: "We are going to take this to trial."

Steinberg in a statement called Ho's actions a "performative distraction" from the work the city is doing on the homelessness issue. He said no other local government in this region has done more to address the crisis. Steinberg pointed to 1,200 new emergency beds, the sidewalk ordinance and critical infrastructure ordinances, a partnership with the county and thousands of new affordable housing units.

"The frustration that members of our community feel is absolutely justified," Steinberg said. "The Council has endorsed and is pressing for strong enforcement of our codes and the law. But the DA's lawsuit will not clear a single sidewalk nor get a single person off the streets."

The city faces opposition to its take on the homelessness issue from both sides. The Sacramento Homeless Union sued the city and county for endangering houseless people by displacing them from shaded lodgings during a 2021 heat wave. In August, a federal judge stopped the city from clearing encampments after the union cited extreme heat. The city appealed an extension of that order in mid-August, which remains pending in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The court-imposed prohibition against clearing encampments is no longer in effect.

Anthony Prince, an attorney for the homeless union, said in a Tuesday statement that it intends to file a motion to intervene in Ho's suit.

"As eviction moratoriums end and thousands more continue to lose their housing, the number of homeless persons will continue to grow, neither DA Ho's meritless lawsuit nor the city's policy of clearing encampments can or will solve the problem," Prince said.

Source: Courthouse News Service

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