Skip to content
Prosecutor sues Sacramento over homeless camps as tensions rise

The city of Sacramento was sued Tuesday by the surrounding county’s attorney general, who said California’s capital suffered a “total collapse into chaos” because city officials weren’t doing enough to remove homeless people. streets.

The lawsuit is the latest sign of growing frustration with homelessness in California, where encampments have become a fixture of downtown streets and highway rights-of-way.

District Attorney Thien Ho of Sacramento County claimed in the complaint that lax enforcement of city ordinances had left homeless people suffering in “third world” poverty and nearby residents enduring dangers and hardships. threats of violence.

City officials quickly denounced the lawsuit, calling it a political act motivated by disgruntled local economic interests and an opportunistic prosecutor elected less than a year ago.

Still, the suit, filed by a Democratic prosecutor against a Democratic-led city, highlighted a growing impatience — even in areas dominated by liberal voters — with homeless camps and progressive policies and court decisions that thwarted their removal.

More than 170,000 people are homeless in California, representing about a third of the nation’s homeless population. More than 115,000 of those 170,000 Californians sleep on the streets, in cars, in tents or outdoors in places not intended for humans, according to a federal count of the homeless conducted last year.

That makes homelessness a more visible crisis in California than in states like New York, where residents without permanent housing typically live indoors due to right-to-housing laws. In several large California cities, camps are spreading onto sidewalks, swamping parks and discouraging the public from visiting riverbanks and beaches.

Lawyers and activists representing the homeless say the state has failed to provide enough housing for its most desperate residents and that many workers have been forced to sleep in tents or in their vehicles because they can’t find affordable housing.

The crisis has made California a regular target for criticism, particularly from Republicans who call encampments in San Francisco and Los Angeles symbols of liberal excess. In recent months, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Gov. Gavin Newsom, both Democrats, have also pointed to homeless camps as a sign of growing societal dysfunction.

“This has gone too far,” Mr. Newsom said at a Sacramento forum hosted by Politico last week. “People’s lives are in danger. It is unacceptable what is happening in the streets and on the sidewalks. Compassion is not about stepping over people in the street.

Where Mr. Newsom differs from Republicans — and Mr. Ho — is on the question of who is to blame.

The governor has stepped up his criticism of federal judges who have ruled that homeless people have the right to camp if cities fail to house them. In 2018, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that cities cannot evacuate people from the streets unless they provide adequate alternative shelter. Since then, a growing body of federal case law has made it extremely difficult for municipalities in the nine Western states overseen by the circuit, from Arizona to Hawaii, to enforce laws regulating public camping.

As a result, many municipal leaders in California say they have to guess what they can legally do, with interpretations varying from county to county. Some city leaders have scaled back enforcement out of fear of potential legal costs.

Last week, Mr. Newsom went so far as to say he wanted to challenge the 2018 ruling all the way to the Supreme Court, where he hoped conservative-leaning justices would make it easier to impeach states like California. legally, or at least would provide more clarity on what was legal. “That’s quite a statement for a progressive Democrat,” he said.

Between 2020 and 2022, the number of homeless people in Sacramento County increased 68%, to 9,278, according to the latest federal data. By comparison, San Diego County’s homeless population increased by 10 percent and Los Angeles County’s by 2 percent.

“Across the country, Sacramento was one of the places where homelessness increased the most,” said Marisol Cuellar Mejia, a researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California, who analyzed the data.

Last year, Mr. Ho defeated a more progressive opponent in an election campaign that made homelessness a central issue, winning support throughout Sacramento County, including the liberal-leaning capital and from its more conservative suburbs.

He said in an interview that he became particularly concerned after a series of alarming incidents near his office, across the street from the county courthouse in downtown Sacramento. He said his staff and court aides were attacked and threatened by residents of nearby encampments, and that a juror on his way to court was chased by an unhoused person brandishing a needle.

Citing a July survey of some 3,000 residents living near 16 encampments around the city, the lawsuit claimed that small retailers near some camps had been driven out of business and that families residing nearby were afraid of leave their home.

In the neighborhood around a Sacramento camp, the suit says, youth football games were disrupted after occupants of a tent camp took over the fields, releasing aggressive dogs, occupying bathrooms and littering the playgrounds of hundreds of hypodermic needles. Near another encampment, local residents said embers from campfires had become such a threat that firefighters had begun holding fire drills.

The 36-page lawsuit relies on detailed accounts from residents living near the city’s encampments, but it does not reference crime data.

Mr. Ho said Sacramento residents told his office that their calls for help from the city went unanswered. “What we are asking through this lawsuit is to demand and force the city to do its job, to keep the streets clean and safe, to enforce the law,” he said.

Anthony D. Prince, general counsel for the California Homeless Union, called the county’s lawsuit a “dangerous, inflammatory and dishonest escalation of the war on the homeless.” He said politicians like Mr. Ho and Mr. Newsom were scapegoating vulnerable people who lacked housing because of systemic inequality in California and were more likely to be preyed upon than to disrupt surrounding neighborhoods.

Sacramento city officials said many of the anecdotes cited in Mr. Ho’s lawsuit were dated and that the prosecutor had ignored the city’s efforts to work with him on the issue. For most of August, they said, the city had little control over the encampments because of a federal court order temporarily prohibiting the city from moving homeless people in hot weather extreme.

In an interview, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said the city had deployed an “incident management team” to specifically respond to complaints around the encampments, and had increased enforcement of local laws governing critical infrastructure, private property and access to sidewalks. A former legislative leader with long expertise in mental health issues, Mr. Steinberg helped the governor pass a measure on the March 2024 ballot that will ask voters to redirect more mental health funds toward housing and treatment for homeless.

A statement from his office dismissed Mr. Ho’s lawsuit, calling it a “performative distraction” from the hard work needed to combat homelessness.