Emboldened by the Department of Justice’s recent legal brief that says it’s unconstitutional to penalize homeless people for sleeping in public spaces, a semi-local activist issued a pretty strong ultimatum to the Sacramento City Council last week.
West Sacramento resident Andy Conn, of the Crunch Nestlé Alliance and Occupy Monsanto movements, demanded that the council rescind its anti-camping ordinance or he’d be first in line to file a complaint with the federal agency, which has said that “punishing conduct that is a universal and unavoidable consequence of being human” is a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
Conn complained that police enforce the city’s anti-ordinance selectively. “We do not see police going to the Fabulous 40s [neighborhood] and looking for Cub Scouts having parties in their backyards and campouts, even though that is illegal under this ordinance,” he told council members during the August 25 meeting.
That’s partly true. While the city ordinance in question does make it illegal to camp or “use camp paraphernalia” on both public and private property, it exempts the kind of recreational camping Conn referred to.
A subsection of the code states: “It is not intended by this section to prohibit overnight camping on private residential property by friends or family of the property owner, so long as the owner consents and the overnight camping is limited to not more than one consecutive night.”
Still, the statement of interest that the Justice Department filed earlier this month in federal district court in Idaho will likely force cities like Sacramento to reconsider their policies. The Justice Department sides with a Los Angeles court opinion, since vacated, that deemed it unconstitutional to enforce an anti-camping ordinance on nights when there wasn’t “sufficient” shelter space to accommodate the city’s homeless residents.
That, too, is a nuanced take, and open to interpretation. After all, what constitutes “sufficient”? The DOJ filing appears to take a narrow view: “If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless,” it states.
That doesn’t seem to account for homeless individuals who avoid shelters because they don’t feel safe there, though it does speak to disability access.
Conn, meanwhile, made sure to take aim at the night’s other big draw–an approved Walk of Stars program that would see stars installed into sidewalk areas to commemorate notable Sacramento residents.
“A compassionate town, a great city, a world-class city is not developed because it has a great sports stadium. It’s not developed because it has a great, new soccer exchange. It’s not a great city if we have people like Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford or Mark Hopkins on the Walk of Fame, who made their fortunes off the bodies of dead Chinese,” Conn said to scattered applause. “A world-class city is based on the compassion their people, and we need to show compassion in this case.”
Addressing the council moments later, James Lee Clark, better known as “Faygo,” of the Community Dinner Project, promised a large occupation of City Hall if action wasn’t taken.
Then there were speakers like Suzanne Hastings, a woman on a fixed income who said she lives “in constant fear” of the bottom falling out. “Our rent is going to go up. Our check is going to get cut for some reason, and we could be facing homelessness,” she said.
She asked the council to consider modifying its anti-camping ordinance to allow a safe ground area. The alternative, she suggested, was “like outlying insulin, and then throwing someone in jail for being diabetic.”