Two new laws banning homeless encampments in certain Sacramento County areas could go into effect in September. But officials say they won’t be widely enforced anytime soon, because the county doesn’t have enough park rangers, sheriff’s deputies or available shelter space.
The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously last week to give initial approval to camping bans along the American River and Dry Creek parkways. The board passed a similar ban on encampments in unincorporated areas near schools, libraries and what the county deems critical infrastructure, such as levees.
“I do think the expectations have to be that the county is going to be very strategic in how this is enforced, understanding there will not be large widespread sweeps,” Eric Jones, a county executive for public safety and justice, told CapRadio in an interview.
Jones said the process could be slow at first, but over time, people concerned that encampments present a safety risk “will begin to see improvements” through a limited and strategic enforcement of the laws.
While wide-scale enforcement might not take place right away, several unhoused people who camp along the American River Parkway expressed fear, anger and frustration over the new laws.
“I think it ain’t right,” said Deborah Casillas, who takes care of her adult daughter, who is disabled, in a camp along the parkway. “Where’s everybody going to go? I mean there ain’t nowhere really to go.”
“I put my faith in God for us because there is no place to go,” added Sharon Jones, who lives in a camp near Casillas.
Currently, the county funds about 1,300 shelter beds, but they are typically full on any given night. The number of beds is far short of the nearly 9,300 people experiencing homelessness in the county, a figure that’s up 67% over the past three years, according to the most recent Point-In-Time count.
County officials say efforts to open more shelter spaces — including a recent approval of 100 tiny homes in South Sacramento for unhoused residents — will allow them to more fully carry out the law in the future.
The ordinances do not require the county to build additional shelter.
Under the new laws, the county can issue citations or arrest people residing in encampments who refuse to move from near the parkways, youth centers, fire prone areas and outside overnight homeless shelters.
But before deputies or rangers can cite or arrest them, they must offer them services including available shelter space, in accordance with a 2018 court ruling known as Martin v. Boise.
Jones, the county public safety executive, said there are cases in which the county can ask people to move even when shelter beds are all full, such as when someone camping near what the county calls critical infrastructure creates “a serious hazard.”
Officials said the new laws will serve as one more enforcement tool but won’t represent a central strategy to address homelessness.
“It’s very important that we continue to find other shelter alternatives for individuals,” said county spokesperson Janna Haynes. “We’re not trying to criminalize and arrest our way out of this at all. It’s an absolute last resort for those who are just putting themselves or others in very serious jeopardy.”
With the approval of the new laws, Sacramento County has joined a growing list of jurisdictions across California that are adopting more aggressive homelessness enforcement rules.
Tristia Bauman, a senior attorney with the National Homelessness Law Center, said the restrictions are growing in popularity “because there is tremendous political pressure to do something about growing unsheltered homelessness.” But that doesn’t mean they’re working, she said.
Joyce Williams lives in an encampment in the watershed of the American River in Sacramento, Calif., Monday, Aug. 15, 2022.Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
“Punitive approaches to homelessness, policing responses to the social crisis of homelessness, has been tested and fails to solve the problem,” Bauman added. “It causes harm, it wastes a lot of taxpayer dollars only to ultimately fail to reduce the number of people living outside.”
Dozens of environmentalists and residents who live near the parkway spoke in favor of the laws at the public hearing that preceded the board’s unanimous vote. Meanwhile, many advocates for people experiencing homelessness spoke out against it.
The board is expected to consider a final adoption of the new laws next Tuesday. If approved, they would go into effect in late September.
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