Activists representing homeless residents on Tuesday sued the city of Sacramento, asking the county court to prevent an anti-camping measure from appearing on November election ballots.
Activists say the so-called “Emergency Shelter and Enforcement Act of 2022” violates a federal ruling known as Martin v. Boise by criminally punishing unhoused people for living outdoors when there’s no available in-door shelter space.
Civil rights attorney Mark Merin, who is representing the five Sacramento nonprofit groups in the lawsuit, said the group hopes a Sacramento County Superior Court judge will declare the measure illegal and order the city to not place it on the ballot.
“It’s so burdensome, so ridiculous, so abhorrent, that we decided that it should not even be put before the people for a vote,” Merin said. “It’s an extreme measure to take an ordinance that has been passed by a public entity and nip it in the bud.”
A judge would need to order the city to pull the ballot measure by the end of the month, according to county elections spokesperson Janna Haynes. Otherwise the county will have already finalized the elections guide with the anti-camping measure on it.
Merin said he believes the group has enough time to win a court order, but added the group will campaign against the measure if it proceeds to the election.
If voters pass the measure with a simple majority, unhoused people camping on city streets would face a misdemeanor for rejecting offers for available emergency shelter space but only when there’s available space. The measure would first require the city to create thousands of shelter beds or safe ground camping sites.
The City Council amended the measure last week, adding a condition for it to become effective only when the city and county sign an agreement describing their responsibilities to provide services to unhoused people.
But the change doesn’t resolve the measure’s issues, said Bob Erlenbusch, Executive Director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. The nonprofit filed the lawsuit along with Sacramento Area Congregations Together, Sacramento Housing Alliance, Organize Sacramento and the Sacramento Homeless Union.
Even if the county signs an agreement, Erlenbusch said the city and county won’t negotiate in a public meeting. He added voters might not know what an agreement covers by the November election.
“It’s been an undemocratic process and a total lack of transparency from the beginning,” Erlenbusch said.
The council first approved the measure in April as a compromise to a more aggressive version put forth by business leaders. Daniel Conway, who is with the Sacramentans for Safe and Clean Streets and Parks and helped write the business-backed measure, has said the group withdrew its proposal in good faith after working with the council.
Conway said proponents are disappointed by homeless advocates attempting to prevent voters from weighing in on the measure.
“This measure will provide safe and secure shelter space to those in need while ensuring that we have safe and accessible public spaces for all members of the community,” Conway said in a text message statement. “Blocking this measure would only reinforce the status quo that is not working for anyone, unhoused or housed.”
The city has roughly 1,100 shelter spaces, which are usually full. About 9,300 unhoused people live in Sacramento County, according to the 2022 Homeless Point in Time Count.
Anthony Prince, attorney for the Sacramento Homeless Union, argued the measure puts unhoused people’s constitutional rights up for a vote. The California Constitution declares people have a right to possess and protect property, as well as pursue and obtain safety.
“It's really about intensifying public opposition to providing housing for people that can't afford traditional housing,” Prince said. “Whether the ballot measure passes or not, it will cause damage because it's a question perpetuating a false narrative.”
Besides the Martin v. Boise case, advocates also referenced a ruling temporarily preventing Sacramento from clearing homeless encampments as support to pull the measure. A federal judge on July 28 ordered the city to stop sweeping encampments until Aug. 25.
The city attorney’s office on Tuesday didn’t have a statement on the lawsuit to stop the ballot measure, a spokesperson said.
Merin said he hopes the court will schedule a hearing for the lawsuit next week. The city could explain how the measure does not violate the law at a hearing.
CapRadio provides a trusted source of news because of you. As a nonprofit organization, donations from people like you sustain the journalism that allows us to discover stories that are important to our audience. If you believe in what we do and support our mission, please donate today.