County prepares camping rules, tiny homes
By Howard Schmidt
Desperate to manage a homeless population that’s nearly doubled in three years, the Board of Supervisors opened a two-pronged strategy this summer.
Board members approved 100 “tiny homes” for a vacant lot in South Sacramento. And the board took preliminary steps to restrict encampments in sensitive places such as sidewalks, waterways, levees and the American River Parkway.
In what’s become familiar blowback, supervisors were criticized for doing too much and not doing enough.
Homeless advocates applauded the decision to provide the tiny homes, but turned around and accused the board of trying to “criminalize homelessness” by preparing to remove camps from critical infrastructure areas.
The tiny home site will include 100 pallet sleeping cabins at the corner of Power Inn and Florin roads. The temporary shelter has everything advocates should want: around-the-clock security, case management services, on-site power, sanitation facilities and food services.
The location will house up to 125 people. The program could expand as county staff evaluates other sites for more pallet homes.
But anytime the board makes a decision on homelessness, there’s opportunity for arguments. The easiest attack is to label any effort to regulate the behavior of homeless people as “criminalization of homelessness.”
Fresh from a June election that saw supervisors Phil Serna and Patrick Kennedy easily win new terms, the board wasn’t ready to accept the criticism. Serna said the “criminalization” charge “rings hollow” and “falls flat.”
Supervisor Rich Desmond said there were obvious reasons to restrict homeless people from building encampments wherever they please. He said the board “can’t disregard what’s happening to critical infrastructure and sensitive environmental areas” caused by homeless camping.
Dianna Poggetto of the American River Parkway Foundation told supervisors the parkway was “ground zero for the number of homeless in the community.” Other people testified about trash and debris left by campers impacting waterways and causing environmental damage.
A 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision, Martin v. Boise, is often cited as an excuse to prevent authorities from removing homeless people when alternate shelter is not available. But the Martin decision allows communities to remove homeless camps from sensitive locations.
County staff is preparing a camping ordinance to address the parkway, levees and other critical infrastructure, including accessibility routes such as sidewalks. Kennedy said the camping ordinance will simply “ask people to live within societal norms.”
Homeless campers have generated tons of trash and debris around campsites. Fires have become common, along with illegal activities such as burglaries, drug sales and prostitution.
In the 2022-23 budget, supervisors authorized $5 million to fund new homeless efforts including shelter staffing, weather respite services and behavioral health staffing for encampment teams.
Supervisor Don Nottoli conceded a camping ordinance offers “no miracle answer” to the problem.
While the county creates homeless policy, the crisis continues to grow. The latest “point in time” count from February shows 9,278 homeless people in Sacramento County. A previous survey three years ago counted 5,570 homeless.
Howard Schmidt worked on federal, state and local levels of government, including 16 years for Sacramento County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.