DA Sues Sacramento Over Homeless Encampments

Travis Gillmore
By Travis Gillmore
September 21, 2023California

With homeless encampments encroaching on sidewalks throughout the city, Sacramento District Attorney Thien Ho announced a series of lawsuits filed against the City of Sacramento for failing to uphold civil codes and enforce the law.

“We are simply holding the city accountable to the same law they enforce on us,” Mr. Ho said during a press conference Sept. 19. “We are giving a voice to those that feel their cries for help have fallen on deaf ears.”

Litigation filed by the district attorney, and a companion suit by approximately 12 individuals and small businesses, alleges that the city “allowed, enabled, and created a public safety issue,” by crafting policies that facilitated the increase of homeless encampments.

Declaring his intent to take the case to trial, Mr. Ho said documents—including text messages and emails—will be demanded for evidence, and approximately 400 to 500 witnesses are expected to be deposed under oath in relation to the case.

“The community is at a breaking point,” he said during the press conference. “The unhoused are living in conditions typical of third world countries, all the while the rest of the community is stuck between compassion and chaos.”

According to the city’s most recent point-in-time count, which it conducts bi-annually, there has been a 250 percent growth in homelessness over the last seven years and a 67 percent jump from 2019 to 2022.

“Seven years into this descent into decay,” Mr. Ho said during the press conference. “Seven years into this collapse into chaos where we have an erosion of everyday life … where we forget what it feels like to be safe.”

Citing internal investigations that revealed no citations issued for disobeying ordinances related to homelessness this year, the district attorney questioned whether specific mandates or policies from city officials were preventing enforcement actions.

“When I saw this, my jaw literally dropped,” Mr. Ho said. “We can’t prosecute cases if cases aren’t presented to us.”

Highlighting the disparity when landlords and property owners are fined for public safety nuisance violations, he stressed that laws must be applied equally in order to be effective.

“Inconsistent enforcement will erode public safety, enable lawlessness, and represents a missed opportunity for interaction and engagement to encourage treatment,” Mr. Ho said. “Why pass laws if you’re not going to enforce them?”

Following months of discussion with city administrators, the district attorney said he was left with no other option than to take the matter to court.

“We’re stuck in this never-ending Groundhog Day loop where nothing gets better, and nothing gets done,” Mr. Ho said. “Enough is enough.”

Among the demands included in the lawsuit, Sacramento is being asked to increase enforcement of existing ordinances, hire additional city attorneys to facilitate the process, create shelter locations and safe sites that are professionally managed, and to establish a real-time database of available shelter beds.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg responded forcefully after learning of the litigation, claiming that Sacramento has done more to address homelessness than any other local government, in a statement released Sept. 19.

“Frankly, we have no time for the district attorney’s performative distraction from the hard work we all need to do together to solve this complex social problem plaguing urban centers throughout the state,” he said. “The city needs real partnership from the region’s leaders, not politics and lawsuits. Let’s just do the work.”

In response to allegations that the city is not enforcing its laws and upholding its mandate, the mayor argued that such is simply not the case, but he understands the exasperation residents are venting.

“We are working day and night to enforce our laws and provide relief to our community while avoiding the futile trap of just moving people endlessly from one block to the next,” Mr. Steinberg said. “The frustration that members of our community feel is absolutely justified. But the district attorney’s lawsuit will not clear a single sidewalk nor get a single person off the streets.”

Responding to the mayor’s comments, the district attorney said the lawsuit is a necessary legal remedy to a years-long problem that has jeopardized the community.

“My office’s decision to sue the City of Sacramento for violating California Civil Code 3480 was based on public safety, not politics or performance,” Mr. Ho told The Epoch Times by email Sept. 20.

Sacramento city officials say they are now preparing for, and “[looking] forward to responding” in court, according to a statement issued the same day by Sacramento City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood.

“The city has attempted to work with the district attorney multiple times in recent months, stating that collaboration is the best path forward,” Ms. Alcala Wood wrote. “However, it sadly appears the [district attorney] would rather point fingers and cast blame than partner to achieve meaningful solutions for our community.”

No mention was made by the city’s mayor or attorney regarding the companion lawsuit filed by citizens.

“The homeless situation created and exacerbated by city leadership is getting worse by the day, and no solutions are being presented to us,” Ognian Gavrilov, the attorney representing the group filing the lawsuit, said during the press conference with the city’s district attorney. “We’re not here to ask for money. We’re here to ask the city to do the right thing.”

One Sacramento resident—with family roots in the city going back 80 years—spoke of the changing conditions and degradation of public spaces that are impacting neighborhoods—including instances of open drug dealing and use, human trafficking, prostitution, and violence occurring on bike trails accessed by children and families.

“We’re not seeing a balance to preserve public health and safety,” said Steven Walton, a long-time advocate for Del Paseo Heights in Old North Sacramento, during the press conference. “It makes a community like mine feel helpless and hopeless at times.”

Another resident impacted by homeless encampments told of her family’s lawn strewn with needles and feces and her driveway blocked by violent individuals for months. After city officials cleared the area, the campers moved back onto the sidewalks once the crews departed.

“We are beyond frustrated, and we no longer feel safe in our home or valued by our city,” Emily, a lifelong Sacramento resident who only provided her first name, said at the press conference. “We deserve better than this. The people in the camps deserve better than this.”

The day after the lawsuit was filed, city officials cleared an encampment that had lingered for more than 18 months in Upper Land Park near Broadway—though the operation reportedly was not related to the litigation and was planned beforehand following a fire that erupted at the location on Aug. 24, according to a spokesperson for the city.

In a statement released following the removal of the camp, the district attorney encouraged such activity.

“We are supportive of enforcement and compliance actions that are responsive to the public safety concerns of the community,” Mr. Ho stated.

Further complicating homeless issues in Sacramento are the Martin v. Boise ruling from the 9th District Court in 2018, which restricts removal unless shelter beds are available, and a temporary injunction from a federal judge this July that prevented clearing camps due to persistent, high temperatures.

From The Epoch Times

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