Two disabled residents sued the city and county of Sacramento last week, alleging they have violated accessibility laws by failing to keep sidewalks clear from homeless encampments.
Last year, the city increased the penalty for blocking sidewalks from an infraction to a misdemeanor. But attorney Louis Demas said the ordinance has not improved access to public walkways.
Demas is representing Susan Hood, a blind Arden Arcade resident, and Chester McNabb, who lives in the central city and uses an electric scooter or walker. They filed the class-action lawsuit in federal court on behalf of all people with mobility disabilities who live, work or travel in the city and county.
“The goal of the lawsuit is to require the city and the county to meet their obligations regarding the [Americans with] Disabilities Act,” Demas said. “It is not intended to create any widespread thing to sweep the homeless off of appropriate sites.”
In addition to the federal ADA, the lawsuit alleges the government agencies have violated state accessibility laws such as the California Disabled Persons Act.
Hood and McNabb are asking the city and county to maintain sidewalks so disabled people can safely use them. They are also requesting the agencies pay their attorney and legal fees.
City spokesperson Tim Swanson said the city is evaluating the complaint and determining next steps. The city’s Department of Community Response is the first point of contact for complaints about blocked sidewalks, he said in an email to CapRadio.
“The goal is to provide everyone with the opportunity to voluntarily comply and maintain the proper clearance,” Swanson said in an email Thursday. “What we have found is that most people agree to work with the City on reducing their footprint, and it is more common for people to decide to discard their non-essential items rather than store them.”
Sacramento’s sidewalk ordinance, which the City Council revised in August, outlines a process for the city to order people to move and offer a place to store belongings. The law gives the city authority to remove encampments after giving 8-hour notice.
In August, the county also passed laws making it a misdemeanor to camp in certain areas. The Board of Supervisors banned camping along the American River and Dry Creek parkways, as well as in unincorporated areas near schools, libraries and levees.
“The ordinances give us tools to use in situations that are either dangerous for the camper, or for the identified critical infrastructure,” County spokesperson Janna Haynes said in an email Wednesday. “However, our ultimate goal any time we have to move people, is to assess their needs for programs and services.”
Haynes confirmed the county received the complaint, but said the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation. She also said the county doesn’t have enough shelter spaces for unhoused people seeking shelter. In August, the county was funding about 1,300 shelter beds.
An estimated 9,300 people in Sacramento County are experiencing homelessness, according to the latest Point-In-Time Count. The 2022 survey recorded a 67% increase in the number of unhoused residents compared to the 2019 count.
The disability lawsuit referenced an increase in the number of people camping on city and county streets since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The Hood and McNabb lawsuit also isn’t the first of its kind on the west coast. A group in September sued the city of Portland for allegedly violating the ADA by not keeping it clear from encampments, local TV station KATU reported.
Demas said sidewalks blocked by encampments isn’t a matter of inconvenience, but a matter of safety and accessibility for disabled people. He added it’s the county’s responsibility to both ensure sidewalks are accessible and provide shelter for unhoused people.
A federal appeals court ruled in 2018 that cities can’t criminally punish people for living outside if there’s no available shelter space. Advocates for unhoused people often cite the Martin v. Boise ruling when arguing people have the right to sit, sleep or lie on public property outdoors when they have nowhere else to go.
Demas said he hasn’t contacted any disability rights law firms to collaborate on the lawsuit, but welcomes their help. He added he has worked on disability cases while representing clients in federal employment complaints. Disability Rights California did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit.
The city and county of Sacramento have until about March 3 to file a response to the complaint, Demas said.
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