City and County Must Leave Homeless Alone, Orders County Health Officer – Homeless Union Doesn’t ‘Trust’ Officials, Still Plans to File Lawsuit

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By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief

SACRAMENTO – Homeless advocates hailed the Sacramento County Health Officer’s new guidelines revealed late Friday that mirrored federal CDC recommendations requiring local officials not to “cite, clear or relocate encampments, or cars, RV’s and trailers used as shelters during community spread of COVID-19.”

In short, local municipalities were ordered to stand down from harassment of the unhoused.

That means that the sometimes daily “sweeps” experienced by the unhoused – carried out by police during all hours of the day and night; in effect, “rousting” homeless – may finally come to an end, at least during the pandemic.

But the Homeless Union, in a statement, said it does not “trust” the city of Sacramento to follow the guidelines, and will follow through with a lawsuit to force the city to do the right thing.

“This is a victory for the Homeless Union, the various coalitions that have formed to demand ‘Services, Not Sweeps’ and the hundreds of volunteers who early on began providing life-saving support, including medical care, while the City and County did nothing,” said Crystal Sanchez, president of the Sacramento Homeless union.

”So, while we are relieved that the County Health officer has finally issued this order, we do not trust the City to comply, and also remain concerned that there is an exception that still threatens hundreds of homeless camped by the levees. We feel court orders and court supervision are necessary and therefore we will be going forward with our lawsuit,” Sanchez said.

Two weeks ago, the union announced plans to sue the city and county of Sacramento for ignoring CDC guidelines against breaking up homeless encampments. The union put the city and county on notice, and filed a complaint with the governor and state attorney general’s office.

Anthony Prince, the attorney for the union, agreed with Sanchez that the suit must go forward.

“The revised order proves the point we have made from the beginning – that under the conditions of the pandemic, the County Health Officer had the already existing authority and duty to regard the CDC guidelines as binding and not merely advisory. By delaying for almost two months, the harm and increased risk of harm to the homeless by way of the sweeps…is likely substantial and our suit is aimed at holding them fully accountable,” he said.

According to the County late Friday, CDC “guidance” for homelessness should be “strictly followed (to) maintain public health and safety (by allowing) people who are living unsheltered, in cars, RV’s, and trailers, or in encampments to remain where they are, unless the people living in those locations are provided with a) real-time access to individual rooms or housing units for households, with appropriate accommodations including for disabilities, and b) a clear plan to safely transport those households.”

The county order specifically mandates that the city and county “Do not cite, clear, or relocate encampments, or cars, RV’s, and trailers used as shelter during community spread of COVID-19. Do not remove property from people experiencing homelessness, which includes their shelter (e.g., tents, vehicles, or other living structures), hygiene equipment, food supplies, water, and personal items. Clearing encampments causes people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers, increasing the potential for infectious disease spread. Exceptions are encampments that pose an imminent and significant public safety hazard, such as a large excavated area of a levee.”

The city and county have been accused for years of breaking up homeless camps, rousting the unhoused, sometimes jailing them but almost always seizing tents, food, medications, and other personal belongings and making it very difficult for the homeless to retrieve what in most cases is everything they own in the world.

The National Lawyers Guild, Sacramento Chapter has criticized the practice repeatedly, calling the seizures illegal and a form of punishment against the homeless without due process.

Prince said the order “provides for exceptions that we fear will mean evictions for hundreds of homeless camped along the levees and other so-called ‘critical infrastructure.’ We dispute the justification for this exception and fear that it will be a green light for police and sheriffs to escalate attacks and clearing of those encampments. We intend to raise these issues to the court.”

He and Sanchez are also criticizing local officials for delaying putting homeless in promised hotel rooms.

“Even with this order we feel a Writ is necessary because the Order only addresses half the problem: there is nothing in it ordering the County and City to stop dragging their feet on hotel rooms. At last count, there were 138 empty rooms that the City has already acquired. Placing at risk in these safe quarantine spaces is no less a medical and legal mandate than the issue of refraining from clearing encampments,” Prince noted.

Sanchez also argued the officials are “failing miserably to obtain and sufficiently utilize hotel rooms to quarantine at-risk homeless. With an official Sacramento County homeless count of over 5,500, fewer than 450 persons have been housed, meaning that 92 percent of the homeless remain unsheltered and at risk of contracting a fatal disease.”

“Mayor Steinberg is taking a page out of Trump’s pandemic playbook because he is ignoring CDC guidelines when it comes to breaking up homeless encampments,” said Sanchez recently, adding that “by continuing anti-homeless sweeps, despite public statements to the contrary, the City is spreading the disease and endangering the lives of the homeless and the general public alike.”

“This is a tale of two cities: One is a false portrait of concern peddled by the City; the other is the reality of 11,000 unhoused persons at risk while hotel rooms stand empty and millions of available dollars are unspent,” she charged.

Prince said the lawsuit he intends to file after the holiday Monday will include “almost 100 sworn statements of homeless persons and volunteers showing deliberate interference with relief efforts that we are providing on the ground.”

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