Right Steps

City finally acts to clear sidewalks, move homeless

By Jeff Harris
September 2023

Unrestricted homeless camping on public property should not be accepted as an inevitability of city life. It’s neither compassionate nor practical to let unhoused people engage in unlawful behavior and flagrant drug use while they live in squalor on our streets.

This is why residents passed Measure O, the Emergency Shelter and Enforcement Act of 2022. Voters expected City Council members to see the measure as a mandate to prioritize public safety and clean up our city.

Citizens sent a message: Make our neighborhoods and Downtown feel safe again. Promote a successful business environment. Elevate our quality of life.

Has City Council heard the will of the people? The answer, judging by council actions in August, is maybe.

The council voted on ordinance enforcement, critical infrastructure, fire code and emergency shelters. The moves are late but welcomed. Let’s call it a ray of hope.

Councilmembers adopted “response protocols” to clean up homeless camps, including criteria to prioritize camps that cause the greatest harm to public safety. This is a tremendous help to city staff—employees who receive mixed direction and micromanagement about enforcement.

What is lacking in the council’s action was a resolution to enforce all laws and city codes equally for housed and unhoused individuals.

Enforcement of city ordinances has been demanded by county District Attorney Thien Ho, whose mandate is public safety. He said the August votes were “necessary first steps, but more needs to be done.” He’s right.

The August protocols passed 7-2. Councilmembers Katie Valenzuela and Mai Vang voted no. Their votes were expected. Valenzuela and Vang consistently act to curtail law enforcement and defund police.

City Council empowered City Manager Howard Chan to select sites for “safe ground,” approved locations for street campers when sidewalk cleanups take place. This action was brought by Mayor Darrell Steinberg, a major reversal from his previous stance. It passed 5-4.

Additional authorized safe ground camp sites will support enforcement activities and cleanups, and give sidewalk campers a place to relocate. Safe ground facilities have some regulation and sanitation facilities.

Councilmember Eric Guerra added clarity by calling for tent-free buffer zones around safe ground sites, plus good neighbor policies and direction for county officials to provide mental health and substance-abuse services.

Members Vang, Sean Loloee, Lisa Kaplan and Karina Talamantes voted against the proposal. They cited concerns about giving too much latitude to the city manager about the use of public funds.

They wanted to retain power to decide about homeless sites in their districts. These concerns are exactly why City Council failed to act for years. Steinberg was right to recommend placing this authority with the city manager. It’s obvious councilmembers can’t solve the problem.

Now the tide is turning. Cities are taking tougher, pragmatic actions to address homelessness. We need the same resolve.

If City Council adopted these resolutions two years ago, Measure O might not have been necessary. It’s a pity Sacramento suffered two years of degradation while elected representatives failed to reach agreement on homeless mitigation.

Homelessness demands bold action. The voters have spoken. Finally, the majority of our City Council has seen the light.

Jeff Harris represented District 3 on City Council from 2014 to 2022. He can be reached at cadence@mycci.net. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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