Witnesses Claim Not Enough Beds for Homeless, Who Are Left Fighting to Stay Alive on the Streets
By Cres Vellucci
Gripping testimony was the order of the day Thursday when the first witnesses for homeless plaintiffs took center stage in their suit against the City of Sacramento – sometimes it was difficult to watch and sorrowful to hear.
The Sacramento Superior Court civil trial, which started Monday and is expected to go at least another week, involves a suit by homeless plaintiffs – originally filed in 2009 – that challenges the constitutionality of the City’s 22-year-old controversial anti-camping ordinance.
The homeless, through their legal team of Mark Merin, Cathleen Williams and Paul Masuhara, claim the City is selectively enforcing the ordinance by citing and arresting the homeless and leaving everyone else alone.
The ordinance makes it illegal for anyone to camp outside anytime on public property, and allows only 24 hours on private property with the permission of the property owner. The homeless are not seeking any money damages, only declaratory relief to end the discriminatory practice.
As jurors and courtroom observers heard from witnesses Thursday, thousands of homeless have been cited and arrested in the past 10 years, and the number is increasing every year. A three-foot high pile of citations – about 5,000 in total – reflecting the number of homeless cited or arrested was on a table behind Merin during opening arguments Wednesday.
“We were trying to make change. This (ordinance) is not working. I’ve watched people die – it’s got to stop,” testified homeless plaintiff John Kraintz before breaking down on the stand.
Kraintz is one of the founders of “Safeground,” a group of homeless in 2009 that set up a tent city on private property with the owner’s position. Those arrests led to the original 2009 lawsuit that is finally being heard now.
“We weren’t trying to hide” he said as he described the encampment that was outfitted with porta potties, and posted rules for residents that banned alcohol, drugs and violence. “Not even fighting words or screaming or yelling were permitted,” he said.
Despite those civil rules, witnesses Thursday said the City of Sacramento shut the tent city down after about a month, citing, arresting and seizing the belongings of most of the two dozen homeless under the City’s anti-camping ordinance. They took that action several times, but still the homeless came back.
Asked why he and others went back to the Safeground site even after being arrested, Kraintz admitted “we had nowhere else to go…we needed a place to stay and it was better than being stabbed to death on the street.”
Kraintz described two City police officers as Batman and Robin, sent to the encampment to talk to them, who hung their heads and “did their job” when they issued orders for the homeless to leave the property, said Kraintz, adding that both officers left the police force shortly thereafter, one retiring and other quitting because, Kraintz believes, they didn’t like doing what they were ordered to do to the homeless.
Kraintz said after the third round of City citations and arrests, then-Mayor Kevin Johnson came to the property and said he’s given those there motel vouchers for winter and was looking for permanent housing for them. Kraintz said they accepted because “we had no place to go.”
But the permanent housing never materialized. Kraintz said the City looked for housing in “100 locations,” and never came up with any. “The homeless still don’t have a safe place to go – it causes
problems for everyone. There just is not a sufficient amount of housing,” Kraintz opined.
Merin continued Thursday with witnesses designed to give the jury a clear view of what it’s like to be homeless, and singled out by authorities for arrest.
“The camp was clean and orderly, and a good neighbor. It was clear we did break the law by being on private property, but what else could the homeless do,” said Sister Libby Fernandez, the former face of “Loaves and Fishes,” which serves the needy and homeless in Sacramento. Fernandez was also cited for camping although, unlike the homeless, she wasn’t jailed.
Fernandez said “the law seems to pick on the homeless” and explained that plans to provide cottages as transitional housing as far back as 1995 never caught on with the City. “Cottages were a good idea – we even had a business plan. But we haven’t done anything since then to help the homeless, she said, adding that in 2009 they had some hope because then-Mayor Johnson “promised Safeground (housing) by the Fall of 2009.” Again, it never materialized.
Milton Harris, a plumber who was left homeless for a few years, was also arrested at the 2009 Safeground action. He’s one of the plaintiffs.
“Did I get arrested? Sure. I had nowhere else to go. They took me to jail, and took away my stuff,” said Harris, describing his nomadic downtown life as “moving every few days. I was chased and cited by the city, but I was determined to sleep somewhere.
“I came to the conclusion that I wanted to challenge the law,” Harris said, noting that it was difficult – being on the run – to get work. Eventually he found work and is not now homeless. But he estimated that because of the arrests, it delayed him getting stabilized for six months.
Another plaintiff, Thomas Ashmore, said on the stand he’d been disabled since birth with a steel plate in his head, but that “I decided to join Safeground because on the streets people can attack you and you can get hit by cars.”
Ron Blubaugh, a retired attorney who has been helping the homeless navigate the justice system for more than a decade as a volunteer with Loaves and Fishes’ Tommy Clinkenbeard Legal Clinic, described in detail how those citations and arrests incurred by the homeless for breaking the anti-camping ordinance are resolved.
“We have what is called the ‘Loaves and Fishes Court’ every month,” he said, explaining that most homeless escape jail by agreeing to do community service with Loaves and Fishes. But Blubaugh noted that the arrests are increasing, and “right now it’s higher than three years ago…harm accumulates to the homeless as a result of the camping tickets.”
Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, startled the courtroom by citing statistics showing nearly 800 homeless have died on the streets in Sacramento – violent deaths like blunt force, stabbing, hanging – in the last 12 years or so. One died right at city hall this year from exposure.
Erlenbusch also charged that the estimated 4,000 homeless in the area is an “undercount.” And that the true figure is about 7,500 homeless, with as many as 3,000 out on the city streets every night. “There has been a dramatic increase in homelessness since 2007,” said Erlenbusch, who said that there are only enough beds – in the best of times – for about 1,800 people a night.
The trial continues next Monday at 9 a.m. at Sacramento Superior Court, Dept. 1.
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