Sacramento City Council has voted against Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s plan to ban towing cars, RVs and vehicles used by unhoused residents as shelter.
Tuesday’s meeting, which lasted several hours, saw contentious debate between advocates for unhoused residents and business owners. Council was also divided, which reflected ongoing conversations about how to best address homelessness and build shelters for unhoused residents.
The decision not to ban the eviction and removal of unhoused peoples’ vehicles comes after a code enforcement “sweep” on the morning of Dec. 7, when crews provided a wake-up call to people living in their vehicles in north Sacramento. The city towed 18 vehicles on Commerce Circle, and over 160 more were ordered to leave the area for violating the parking code, which says vehicles must be registered with the DMV and cannot be parked in the same place for over 72 hours.
People who had to move didn’t have anywhere to go: The city’s shelters, motels and “safe ground” sites were all full that day, according to city spokesperson Tim Swanson.
That lack of capacity — and frustration from advocates — prompted Steinberg to propose a ban on towing if residents did not have a place to relocate and find shelter.
“If we do not link cleaning-up the city to adding more capacity for people who are unsheltered in various forms, we will be haunted by that decision for a long time,” Steinberg said at the meeting on Tuesday.
Councilmembers Jeff Harris and Sean Loloee were among those who opposed the ban, partly due to concerns that it would not effectively address business owner worries over vandalism and crime.
“Keep in mind that some of these are very small business operators,” Loloee said. “Everything that they had, they’ve invested to open up their business, which means if they don’t make it they could potentially end up homeless.”
Some council members supported the mayor’s plan.
“This issue is a life-and-death matter,” Councilmember Mai Vang said. “It’s also very important that as a Council, as a city, we ensure that we have the tools to be careful, and to not remove and harm folks from the only shelter they may have until they actually have a safe and alternative place to go.”
Vang said she viewed the mayor’s resolution as an extension of the city’s current work building new shelters for unhoused residents.
But after hours of public comment from over 50 people, City Council voted not to adopt the mayor’s plan. Instead, in a 6-3 vote, it passed one by Mayor Pro Tem Angelique Ashby, requiring written weekly public updates on development of new sites for unhoused residents and of any enforcement actions that have taken place.
“We would be prodding our staff without using our community as that prod, but using ourselves, as a weekly report-back,” Ashby said.
Steinberg, Vang and Council member Katie Valenzuela were the three “no” votes against Ashby’s resolution.
Prior to public comment, Steinberg announced an amended version of his resolution, which included a 90-day period before the proposal would take effect. During that time, Council would need to vote whether to tow a shelter vehicle.
Business groups want to keep ‘key tool’ of moving homeless peoples’ cars
The mayor’s resolution was met with resistance from several members of the Sacramento business community, with speakers from the Greater Sacramento Economic Council, Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and California Asian Chamber of Commerce urging a “no” vote at a Tuesday morning press conference in front of City Hall.
Amanda Blackwood, president and CEO of the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce, said that she helped organize opposition in hopes of creating more awareness about business owners’ experiences and perspectives.
“The ordinance to tow vehicles that are illegally parked, that is one of the key tools that’s been used to clear out some of the encampments that have had a huge increase in crime,” she said. “There was definitely a shared sense that at minimum, we didn’t get adequate time to review this proposal at all.”
Sacramento County supervising deputy district attorney Ron Linthicum also sent out a message recommending “strong opposition.”
“You can bet that many homeless advocates will voice their opinions,” he wrote in an email shared with CapRadio. “It is important that as many business owners get involved to voice the business viewpoint.”
Business owners expressed concerns about illegal dumping and vehicle break-ins on Commerce Circle, as well.
Additionally, many of the public comments at Tuesday’s Council meeting from business owners included language from a sample comment letter sent out via the Chamber, calling the current moment a “public safety crisis.”
Robert Engle, who says he has a property on Western Avenue that is 800 feet away from an encampment, phoned in during public comment to urge the mayor not to pass the resolution.
“The invasion of these homeless in our area is a crisis,” he said. “They bring in squalor. They bring in contamination. They are not tax-paying residents of Sacramento. They are transient, so the consideration that they are somehow constituents is ridiculous.”
Homeless advocates call city’s policy of towing vehicles used as shelter ‘gutting’
The mayor’s failure to stop the towing of shelter vehicles followed a major storm that flooded several parts of the city and sent unhoused people looking for shelter, which were few and far between, despite City Council setting aside $3 million in March to keep respite centers open 24-seven throughout the year.
Shelly Williams, who distributed food and supplies to unhoused people living along Commerce Circle, said it was frustrating to see business owners hold their press conference right after the storm, “where some of the people they displaced had to endure entirely unsheltered.”
Commerce Circle is the second encampment that she’s distributed supplies to and seen cleared out; the first was at Dias Avenue and Stockton Boulevard. She said she wants to know how to explain to her kid, who also comes with her on supply distribution runs, why entire communities that they had gotten to know had disappeared.
“It’s gutting,” she said via direct message on Twitter. “I’m trying to think in broad strokes, but it’s hard sometimes when you know these people being terrorized. It is infuriating to hear business owners offering their platitudes when you know they’d love to just disappear 11,000 human beings in their own community.”
And P.J. Andrews, who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, told CapRadio that, while business interests are “completely understandable,” he was frustrated that many business owners reacted in favor of temporary fixes.
He said he wanted to see the city implement “policies based in empathy until longer term housing is available,” and that the “latter will actually result in long term housing solutions for most of those currently unhoused. Meaning sweeps would no longer be necessary.”
“A lot of the complaints surrounding encampments are eminently addressable via a robust city response including: trash pickup, bathroom facilities, robust addressing of illegal dumping at encampments, and more,” he told CapRadio. “Just these few things would make an immense difference in the lives of housed residents inconvenienced by the existence of unhoused folks. And would take minimal effort on the part of the city.”
Tuesday’s Council meeting was the last of 2021, so the weekly homeless siting and enforcement updates will begin at next year’s first meeting. Per the resolution, between now and March 15, the city will also work with Councilmember Jay Schneirer and Blackwood from the Chamber to identify solutions that address both community and business needs.
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