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California district attorney may charge officials over homelessness

Sacramento's district attorney said city officials have failed to enforce rules to reduce homelessness.
California district attorney may charge officials over homelessness
Posted at 2:59 PM, Aug 09, 2023

Tensions are rising in California's capital city as the Sacramento district attorney threatened to file charges against city officials over their handling of the homelessness crisis, saying they are too lenient in their approach and are failing to enforce the rules.

District Attorney Thien Ho on Monday threatened to press criminal charges against city officials under state public nuisance laws if they don't implement a slew of changes within 30 days, including a daytime camping ban where homeless people have to put their belongings in storage between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m.

Ho was elected in 2022 after vowing on the campaign trail to address the city's homelessness crisis. He began his public fight with City Hall officials last month when he launched an investigation into officials' conduct. Ho said Sacramento city officials are "inconsistent" in enforcing rules, including an ordinance to keep sidewalks clear of encampments, resulting in "an unprecedented public safety crisis."

Ho also wants the city to clear all 16 encampments within city's limits, open 24-hour shelter beds for thousands of people who sleep on the streets each night, give out citations to those who decline shelter, and hire four more city attorneys to enforce city rules, among other things.

"This local crisis has been made worse by local decisions and indecisions. Therefore, we have taken the first formal step towards litigation against the City of Sacramento," Ho said in a statement, calling the list of demands the city's opportunity to address the issue.

In response, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg blasted Ho at a news conference Tuesday, saying the district attorney is politicizing the issue while refusing to work with the city. Steinberg said his office brought a number of proposals to Ho in late July, including expanding mental health and drug courts, and alternatives to misdemeanor charges for homeless individuals. Ho did not respond, Steinberg said.

In a statement, Steinberg said Ho "deflects responsibility, takes credit for programs the city initiated, lacks basic understanding of existing shelter management system and funding structures, and includes a series of demands that would cripple the city financially."

Ho's letter didn't specify which city officials could face charges.

SEE MORE: Advocates rush to help those living with homelessness in record heat

The dispute between the district attorney and the city is further complicated by a lawsuit filed by a homeless advocacy group that last week resulted in an order from a federal judge temporarily banning the city from clearing homeless encampments during extreme heat.

Ho's demands are alarming to some advocates, who said a citywide daytime camping ban and stricter enforcement of city rules would upend the lives of many homeless people.

"That might serve to kind of clean the streets and make homelessness less visible, but I don't think that is actually going to help the folks that are living with being homeless," said Angela Hassell, executive director of Sacramento Loaves and Fishes. The organization provides hot meals, shower and other services to roughly 10,000 people monthly.

Chris Herring, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, said he's never heard of a district attorney threatening to sue a city over its response to homeless encampments – and certainly not so publicly.

But he says elected officials have previously politicized the issue to stake out policy differences.

Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, for example, threatened to reinstate a public camping ban that the city of Austin lifted in 2019 under then-Mayor Steve Adler, a Democrat. The two traded barbs that reflected "the broader culture wars" on how to handle homelessness, Herring said. Voters reinstated the ban in 2021.

More quietly, Herring says, it's common for public agencies and elected officials to press discreetly for encampments to be removed. "It's usually not public because they don't want to be seen as criminalizing, or even being oppositional, to unhoused people," he said.

Homeless tent encampments have grown visibly in cities across the U.S. but especially in California, which is home to nearly one-third of unhoused people in the country. In Sacramento, the homeless population jumped 67% between 2019 and 2022, and most live outdoors without shelter.

Advocates for homeless people say they can't alleviate the crisis without more investment in affordable housing and services, and that camping bans and encampment sweeps unnecessarily traumatize homeless people.

But others say encampments are unsanitary and lawless, and block children, seniors and disabled people from using public space such as sidewalks. They say allowing people to deteriorate outdoors is neither humane nor compassionate.


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