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County debates how to break the law

The mafia doesn’t make their internal dealings public, and much of their public image comes from fictional depictions, but it is easy to imagine a bunch of mafiosas sitting around and having a strategy meeting about how best to avoid getting in trouble for their various illegal activities. They would bring in a lawyer, some other high-ranking members perhaps, and talk about a) the current laws on the books which restrict their activity, and b) what they think they can get away with given those laws.

To see a real life example of how this might look, you could watch the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors meeting that was held on June 14th, and specifically listen to their discussion around Item 77.

The County held this meeting because they are interested in drawing up an ordinance that would dramatically increase the areas in which “camping” is prohibited, and beef up their own ability to enforce those prohibitions. This meeting was a workshop, so there was no ordinance up for a vote, but County staff made a presentation on a proposal and got feedback from the Board of Supervisors on the language they used.

Specifically, the proposed ordinance would prevent any encampments either in or near “critical infrastructure, locations providing year-round overnight shelter to people experiencing homelessness, and wildfire and flood risk areas during inclement weather.”

There was no pushback at all from any members of the Board of Supervisors against this idea - in fact, Phil Serna spent a lot of time enthusiastically proposing even larger restrictions, specifically covering sidewalks and waterways. The City staff giving the presentation - Emily Halcon and Leticia Ramirez - said that they would probably need to bring back a separate ordinance to deal with the waterways, but should be able to incorporate sidewalks (to read about a sidewalk ordinance in Sac City click here) into this one.

The County was rightfully savaged by public comments for this nonsense. A common refrain was that the Board is trying to “criminalize homelessness”, which of course prompted the board members to fits of over-exaggerated outrage, but it really seems like the shoe fits in this case.

You can find some important comments in the video below!

Setting aside for a moment the obvious moral failing of a County that is determined to harass and criminalize its unhoused residents over and over again, the County is on very shaky legal ground whenever it tries to impose restrictions on where unhoused folks are allowed to stay.

The 9th Circuit Court decision Martin v Boise from 2018 prevents jurisdictions from enforcing anti-camping ordinances unless they have available shelter space - in fact, it says that enforcing these laws against the homeless is a violation of the Constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

The language from that decision is very clear, without much wiggle room, and it is legally binding in California.

Despite a nauseating amount of patting themselves on the back during this meeting, the County has not yet put in place any infrastructure which would provide shelter for anything near the total number of unhoused folks in Sacramento County. Leticia Ramirez, an attorney with the County, at least acknowledged this reality during her presentation, though her focus was primarily on how the County could most effectively push the limits of Martin v Boise and do as much enforcement as possible.

The proposed initiative focuses heavily on things like “critical infrastructure”, to attempt to be legally defensible while still wrecking as many unhoused lives as possible

By attempting to pass punitive measures like this proposed ordinance instead of focusing on actually providing shelter and housing, the County is very much putting the cart before the horse, both from a legal perspective and from a moral one. There are certainly legitimate issues at play here: the accumulation of trash in the American River is clearly not good, for example, and accessible sidewalks are important to have. The County absolutely has an interest in protecting “critical infrastructure”.

The trouble is that none of these things are symptoms of homelessness.

Homelessness is itself a symptom.

All of these issues - trash in the rivers, a high number of unhoused people, crowded and inaccessible public spaces - are symptoms of the same problem: our society refuses to provide people with housing when they need it

Housing is a human right, but most of America has made the choice to instead set a minimum income threshold on housing access.

As Dan, an unhoused advocate, said in his comment, “Nobody wants to be homeless out there, you guys! Nobody.”

Being homeless is not a choice people make, it’s a devastating thing which happens to them, and it’s absurd and gross to blame unhoused people for their own suffering.

So, not only is this proposed ordinance legally questionable, but it’s also ultimately useless. Until Sacramento County commits to housing its unhoused residents, none of these problems will ever be solved, and in the meantime laws like this proposed ordinance do nothing but force our most vulnerable population to suffer even more.

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