Unhoused Sacramento residents blocking sidewalks or business entrances could face misdemeanor charges under a new proposal the City Council will consider in August.
Proponents say the changes would enable the city to remove people who refuse to clear their belongings or let others pass. Opponents of the change say it would further criminalize homeless people.
“We're not asking people to move out of town or move three blocks away,” said Council member Harris, who brought forth the proposal. “The point is not to inconvenience the homeless. The point is to get some sort of convenience for everybody who needs to use the sidewalk, which is a legal right in the city.”
The proposal would modify the existing sidewalk ordinance by increasing the penalty for breaking it from an infraction to a misdemeanor. The amendments would also establish that people can’t block building entrances and must allow at least a four-foot-wide path on sidewalks. Instead of just police, the law would also allow the city manager or a designee to enforce the ordinance.
City staff could still modify the proposal, which was approved June 21 in the Law and Legislation Committee.
Council members Jay Schenirer and Katie Valenzuela expressed concerns during that meeting over elevating the violation level to a misdemeanor. But Harris argued the proposal is moot without enforcement.
Currently, police, code enforcement or the Department of Community Response ask people to clear a walking path and give chances to comply. If the person refuses to move, police give an infraction but cannot force people to move, city staff said during the committee meeting. And Harris said that deters people from entering businesses or forces people to walk on the street.
“We need a tool to be able to manage our sidewalks so that we can assure safe passage for all people,” Harris said. “For homeless and housed, for kids, for elders and for people confined to a wheelchair.”
Some advocates for unhoused residents say the proposal does not solve underlying issues. People sleep on sidewalks because they don’t have anywhere else to go, said Angela Hassell, Executive Director of Sacramento Loaves & Fishes.
Sacramento has roughly 3,400 shelter beds to serve the more 9,200 unhoused people living in the county, according to the 2022 Homeless Point in Time Count. Those shelter spaces are most often full, and sometimes people rest under storefronts to stay out of the rain or heat, Hassell added.
Rather than penalizing people, Hassell said she would rather see Sacramento put more energy toward creating opportunities such as opening more safe ground camping sites.
Misdemeanor charges can also add barriers preventing people from obtaining housing, Hassell said, as rental applications typically require background checks.
“I know that [the proposal] wasn't explained to be sort of attacking homeless folks or criminalizing homelessness,” Hassell said. “But whether or not that was the intended result, with something like this, that will be the result.”
Sacramento proposal part of homeless policy trend
The proposed sidewalk ordinance follows a trend of local proposals criminalizing unhoused people, said Bob Erlenbusch, Executive Director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness.
Erlenbusch said the proposal echoes the pending Sacramento County ordinance banning camping near spaces deemed “critical infrastructure” and a state assembly bill that would have sped up removing encampments along the American River Parkway. That bill was pulled from committee by its author, Assembly member Ken Cooley (D–Rancho Cordova).
“To me, these kinds of actions are a sad admission by city and county government that their public policies have failed because they haven't done very much to end and prevent homelessness,” Erlenbusch said.
Erlenbusch and other homeless advocates say the city should instead take a trauma-informed approach. Sending law enforcement can trigger a fight or flight reaction in people, he said, referring to the coalition’s 2021 report on adverse childhood experiences.
With multi-disciplinary teams, including peer advocates and staff who have experienced homelessness, Erlenbusch said the city can more effectively help unhoused residents.
The city created the Department of Community Response two years ago to divert calls away from police and toward specialized professionals. But the city has not given the department sufficient resources, according to Council member Katie Valenzuela, who represents Sacramento’s Central City where homelessness is most visible.
When the council considers the proposal, Valenzuela said she would like to discuss the process of asking people to move off sidewalks. In the final amended ordinance, Valenzuela said the council should specify potential steps such as the city helping unhoused residents move their belongings to storage or another location.
She said codifying requirements, and even time allowances, can help prevent issuing misdemeanors.
“These folks don’t have vehicles and they don’t get around super easily,” Valenzuela said. “We need to give people the time and opportunity to correct before we jump in and say, ‘OK, now we're going to penalize you in this way.’”
Valenzuela added she still prefers to drop the misdemeanor from the proposed changes.
The council is scheduled to discuss the sidewalk ordinance during the Aug. 9 regular meeting.
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