1st Homeless Struck with COVID-19 May Be Victims of Sacramento City Hall Sweeps, Unions Charge

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Police with guns and shields burst through door where homeless are sheltering in place

By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief

SACRAMENTO – Unions for the Sacramento and California homeless unions are charging the city of Sacramento is being less than truthful about whether Sacramento Police are “sweeping” homeless out of the streets – and the only real protection they have from the elements and COVID-19 – contrary to the recommendations by the Center for Disease Control and state’s “Shelter-in-Place” guidelines.

The unions then suggested the first homeless diagnosed with the coronavirus may be victims of those sweeps.

“In your message to me of April 8, 2020, you (city attorney Susana Wood) denied that the police were continuing to conduct sweeps of homeless persons,” wrote Anthony Prince, the homeless union chief counsel in a letter made available to THE VANGUARD.

He said media reports on April 9 showed “some 70 homeless were forcibly removed from the City Hall plaza in one of the continuing daily actions by police at this location in disregard of CDC guidelines. These individuals and the police officers who cleared them then left the area, scattered throughout the downtown area and beyond where they all risked both exposure to and may have spread the COVID-19 virus.”

Prince then suggested that two people “identified as homeless were diagnosed as COVID-19 positive. We have reason to believe that these individuals may have been swept from the front of City Hall.”

Prince added that “we hope and expect that the proper authorities are performing due diligence in contact tracing these exposures,” and requested that “your office cooperate with our Union to now ensure that all those who may have had contact with these individuals – whether at City Hall or elsewhere – be warned, examined, treated and provided with medical care and noncongregant housing at once using the money allocated for that purpose by the State of California.”

Prince also informed the city that the union is “aware that police continue to sweep homeless persons at will, using the ‘sit-lie ordinance, protection of critical infrastructure and obstruction of sidewalks’ as pretexts for such actions. Neither can the City justify these sweeps by having so-called ‘navigation’ persons present or by utilizing a ‘Homeless Outreach Teams.’

“We have documented these daily pretextual sweeps and have received reports that the City is taking down handwashing stations and other survival facilities while also interfering with our medical volunteers from U.C. Davis. We are aggregating this evidence and will be forwarding our concerns to the State Attorney General’s office with whom we have already filed a complaint,” wrote Prince in his Friday letter.

Prince said the first recorded homeless COVID-19 cases “confirms what our Union, the CDC and public health professionals have long maintained: that the failure to provide housing represents an existential threat to society that the pandemic has now made obvious…Sacramento cannot continue to drag its feet in acquiring hotel rooms not only for those who are ‘sick’ but for those who are pre-symptomatic, asymptomatic or members of a high-risk population such as the homeless.”

The homeless community has long criticized Steinberg for promising to build tent cities and other places for the homeless to go but failing to deliver on virtually all of them.

“The timetable of placing the un-sheltered in hotel rooms must be immediately expedited: taking nine weeks to fill 900 rooms (as reported in the news media), is simply and dangerously inadequate,” charged Prince, who attached a letter “from members of Science for the People, an international organization with whom we are partnering during this crisis.

“As their letter indicates, by failing to suspend the sweeps in fact, the City of Sacramento fails to heed the direction provided by the professionals best qualified to guide us through this pandemic. To the extent that it does not cease and desist from exposing the homeless and the broader community to this state-created danger, be advised that we will hold the City of Sacramento fully accountable.”

Earlier this month, the homeless advocates lodged a complaint with the state of California against city of Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and the city for violating the state’s “Shelter-in-Place” executive order and disregarding the Center for Disease Control guidelines against clearing of homeless encampments during the coronavirus pandemic.

The letter was addressed to CA Attorney General Xavier Becerra, CA Dept. of Public Health Director Sunia Angell, Sacramento County Dept. of Health Services and Steinberg, who also happens to be – ironically – the co-chair of the California Commission on Homelessness and Supportive Housing.

“Accordingly, as of this morning, we have formally lodged this complaint using the online procedures provided at the website of the Attorney General’s office as well as via electronic transmission and regular mail to the departments of health of the State and Sacramento County,” wrote Prince.

A few days before, the union emailed a similar letter outlining the missteps of the City of Sacramento, advising that Sacramento police “continue to conduct sweeps of homeless persons from location to location and the physical dismantling of homeless encampments in direct violation of Governor Newsom’s Executive Order N-33-20, issued March 19, 2020 which requires, inter alia, that all individuals living in the State of California to stay home or at their place of residence.”

The homeless union maintains that the Governor’s Executive Order “requires everyone to shelter-in-place, and applies not only to those who have homes, but also to those whose ‘place of residence’ may be a homeless encampment or other public space,” or just a description of streets, parks or other places where the individual may live.

“Thus, by breaking up existing encampments, i.e. homeless persons’ residences, under any pretext and sweeping the homeless from place to place, the City of Sacramento is violating California State Executive Order No. N-33-20,” the complaint noted, adding that “by continuing to conduct sweeps of any scale, the City is directly endangering the lives of thousands of Sacramento residents, housed and unhoused alike.”

As the union warned Steinberg that the city was “endangering the lives of thousands of Sacramento residents, housed and unhoused alike” by continuing the sweeps, they pointed out that the city was disregarding CDC instruction to “not clear encampments during community spread of COVID-19…Unless individual housing units are available.

“Our Union has mobilized over 100 medical students, doctors, restaurants, citizen volunteers and our own members to provide handwashing stations, hygiene materials, food and clothing to the homeless in the camps and on the streets,” said the union.

The union charged that the city of Sacramento and Steinberg are “directly interfering with our efforts to bring life-saving relief to those most at risk to themselves and others.”

Sacramento Homeless Union President Crystal Sanchez remarked that “our officials lack of response is placing not only the unhoused but the housed as well at greater risk for contracting COVID-19. The bans and ordinances need to be temporarily suspended to keep unhoused in place. The policies that directly prevent those from being immediately housed need to be suspended immediately not in five weeks. Sacramento is playing a very dangerous game with its residents.”

The legal wrangling was underscored when three homeless people – in a brave and blatant attempt to abide by the state of California’s “shelter in place” mandate in response the coronavirus pandemic – were arrested in the Land Park area, just a few miles from the State Capitol when they entered a long-abandoned property to find that shelter.

The three “unhoused” occupants were surrounded by dozens of City of Sacramento police officers, who broke into the house with shields and drawn weapons. Those arrested were cited for misdemeanor trespass, and released without being booked – not necessarily because the city was being generous. The Sacramento Superior Court presiding judge has ordered local law enforcement to cite and release, and not take to jail, people breaking laws unless violent in nature because of the COVID-19 threat to the county jail.

“At a time when the entire State of California has been asked to shelter in place, unhoused populations remain unprotected, with nowhere to go, no house to shelter in, no sanitary supplies, and no means by which to honor social distancing requirements,” read a statement released by those arrested and their supporters.

The Muir Way property is, according to the organizers, owned by Wedgewood Properties. Protestors identified the real estate group as being “the same home-flipping giant which owned the vacant property which Moms4Housing in Oakland moved into recently.

“Several groups of unhoused people in Los Angeles have taken similar actions in the last week, all inspired by Moms4Housing, attempting to call attention to the real need of the thousands of unhoused people across the state who are at high risk in the midst of this pandemic,” said the unhoused Sacramento group.

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