By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief
SACRAMENTO – The city and county of Sacramento continue to ignore CDC COVID-19 guidelines and orders of the Sacramento County Health Officer by conducting unlawful sweeps and rousts – all over the county, and as recently as Tuesday morning – charged an extensive, 29-page Sacramento Homeless Union class action lawsuit expected to filed early Wednesday here in Sacramento Superior Court.
A copy of the lawsuit, obtained exclusively by THE VANGUARD Tuesday night, calls for the court to provide injunctive relief immediately to “prevent the city and county of Sacramento from continuing to violate the orders of the county’s health department prohibiting the clearing of homeless encampments,” according to Sacramento Homeless Union chief counsel Anthony Prince.
Plaintiffs include the Sacramento Homeless Union, Sacramento Solidarity Of Unhoused Persons (SacSOUP), Tami McGraw, White Buffalo Eagle Bear Hawk Wolf, PhD, Jay Edwards, Amanda Wienholz, Roberta Lockwood, Charles East and Dontra Williams, representing the homeless class.
Named defendants include the city and county of Sacramento, city mayor Darrell Steinberg, Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn, Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna, Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones, Sacramento County Dept of Health Services, and Sacramento County Health Officer Olivia Kasiyre.
In short, the initial pleading claims that the city and county, and public officials, have utterly failed to protect the 5,500 or more homeless people in the area, and have violated CDC, state and county guidelines designed to do just that during the COVID-19 pandemic.
That failure, the unhoused assert, can ultimately endanger the community.
Homeless plaintiffs claim that the Sacramento County Health Officer issued a revised order last Friday that prohibited the clearing of homeless encampments and strict adherence to guidelines
otherwise provided by the (CDC) Centers for Disease Control to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
However, in the two months preceding the order, the union said it has repeatedly advised defendants – and in particular Steinberg and the city – that rousting the homeless by clearing encampments and forcing homeless individuals to repeatedly move from one location to another violated CDC guidelines and “greatly heightened the risk of contracting COVID-19” for them, and the community at large.
Less than 48 hours after the County health office issued orders not to conduct sweeps, on May 24, city and county law enforcement struck hard.
“Sacramento police descended (into) what is known as the Roseville Road homeless encampment, which has been in place for at least ten years and instructed approximately 150 residents that they had to leave within 24 hours. Police did not explain why the camp was being cleared, nor was alternative housing of any kind offered,” according the pleading.
“During the same timeframe, city police went to a large encampment on public property behind the Cubesmart Storage facility and ordered approximately 75 homeless persons to ‘move on.’ Again, no alternative housing, medical trailer or hotel room was offered or provided.
“(I)n the same 48-hour period, Sacramento County Sheriffs descended upon a 10-person encampment near Raley’s and ordered them to leave without offering or providing any alternative shelter in disregard of the Health Officer’s order of May 22, 2020,” the filing continued.
And, after the dragnet kicked about 250 homeless down the road, the city sent “Sacramento Police on bicycles and in two squad cars” Tuesday morning to remove about 100 people camped at City Hall Plaza – they threatened them that they would be arrested.
“No alternative housing of any kind was offered or provided, as required by the Health Officer’s Order,” said the Homeless Union.
“The potential for harm in the event of a homeless encampment outbreak cannot be understated,” charged the suit. “The relationship between homelessness and conditions known to exacerbate the risk of injury or death from COVID-19 are well-researched and extensively documented,” the pleading asserts.
It noted that “Living on the street results in severe stress, which is aggravated by violence, communicable disease, malnutrition, and exposure to extreme weather. Chronic health issues, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and asthma worsen because homeless people often lack a safe place to store medications properly. Maintaining a healthy diet is often impossible, as meals served in shelters and in soup kitchens are typically high in fat, salt, sugar, and starch, and low in nutritional value.”
And when unsheltered people become sick, “it is harder to recover without a safe, clean, place to rest,” which elevate the homeless “risk of severe injury or death in the event of infection with COVID-19,” the homeless union added.
The city, said attorney Prince, has failed to dispute or even address the Union’s concerns regarding clearing of the encampments, forcing the filing of the lawsuit as a last ditch resort.
In their nine-count pleading document, the plaintiffs ask for a writ of mandate, preliminary injunction, or permanent injunction for “Strict compliance with Sacramento Health Officer Order of May 22, 2020 (and) Strict compliance with CDC guidelines regarding protection of unsheltered persons.
Within seven days, they want the municipalities to “implement adequate hygiene measures at all homeless encampments and shelters within Defendants’ jurisdiction according to the CDC guidelines,” including one handwashing station for every 20 people, providing one portable toilet for every 20 people and providing gloves, masks and hand sanitizers for all encampments.
The plaintiffs also demanded that officials “immediately suspend law enforcement sweeps of homeless encampments for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic..suspend any law enforcement efforts to discourage homeless encampment volunteers from providing needed assistance to residents, provide, within seven days “as many hotel rooms as necessary to individually quarantine all homeless persons at risk for contracting COVID-19,” and “Authorize the Encampment Medical Team, with logistical support provided by Sacramento Homeless Union and SacSOUP Coalition.”
Other demands include the elimination of “all unreasonable, medically unjustified restrictions and impediments to obtaining and remaining in quarantine hotel rooms now being imposed on quarantine hotel room guests and authorize the Encampment Medical Team and other health professionals to make determinations as to which rules and restrictions are medically necessary.”
Finally, the suit asks officials to “Issue a declaration that by failing to abide by the Sacramento Health Officer’s Order of May 22, 2020 prohibiting the clearing of encampments and by its dilatory failing to house the homeless in quarantine hotel rooms with the scope and with the speed sufficient to actually provide protection and contain the virus, the City and County of Sacramento’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic violates the rights of unsheltered persons under Article I, Section 7 of the California Constitution; the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution under California Civil Code sections 51, 52.1, 54, and 54.1 and California Government Code section 11135.”
The plaintiffs want an expedited hearing because of the imminent threat to the unhoused community.
“Plaintiffs, who all reside in homeless encampments in the City of Sacramento or provide services to the homeless, bring this challenge because living conditions in the encampments have put the homeless and larger community at severe risk of injury of death from COVID-19,” the pleading noted.
It argued that “signed statements from nearly 100 homeless persons residing in numerous encampments describing how they were threatened by police and denied the opportunity to move to a hotel room although the vast majority of persons who signed such statements met the qualifications for such quarantine accommodations set by the County’s COVID-19 Response team.”
“Homeless shelters and encampments have emerged as infection epicenters. COVID-19 infections have devastated homeless populations in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and it is only a matter of time until the same happens in Sacramento,” wrote the plaintiffs, repeatedly citing the CDC, which has provided guidance on how to prevent the virus spread to “unsheltered homelessness in encampments.”
“This guidance includes recommendations for local governments to encourage social distancing; improve sanitation; ensure nearby bathroom facilities have functioning water taps, are stocked with hygiene materials and bath tissue, and remain open to people experiencing homelessness 24/7; and assist with providing access to portable bathrooms with handwashing facilities equipped with hand sanitizer,” the lawsuit said.
And specifically, “This guidance also expressly recommends that local governments cease encampment sweeps, as sweeps can “cause people to disperse throughout the community, threatening to break critical connections with service providers and increasing the potential for infectious disease spread.”
Finally, the lawsuit criticizes how the city and county have not used the financial resources wisely, and promised to help the unhoused, only to fail.
“The City and County of Sacramento have received direct monetary and personnel assistance from the state and federal governments to assist in efforts to place homeless people in temporary housing…Governor Newsom set aside $150 million designated as direct aid to local governments for shelter support and emergency housing…
“(O)n April 3, 2020, Governor Newsom launched Project Roomkey, an initiative through which the state provides local governments with ‘dedicated support teams’ to identify hotels and negotiate and execute operating agreements. The City of Sacramento also received federal stimulus relief in the amount of $89 million,” explained the homeless union in its suit.
They said the city and county have “made various promises to address the homelessness crisis…on March 25, 2020, the Sacramento Homelessness Response Team came up with a plan to add 200 beds to existing shelters and to arrange for temporary housing in 63 trailers and 800 motel rooms, which was approved by the Sacramento City Council in a subsequent meeting.
“Nearly two months later, no beds were added to existing shelters, and Defendants have met only half of their goal of making 800 motel rooms available. As a result, homeless encampment residents must continue to live in unsanitary, unsafe conditions that make them unreasonably susceptible to COVID-19 infection and at risk of serious injury or death,” the lawsuit claimed.
The legal filing charged that “Defendants have continued to sanction law enforcement sweeps throughout Sacramento’s homeless encampments…police have been seen ‘actively discouraging and preventing people from handing out supplies and meals’ to encampment residents. Medical students volunteering (report) patients have lost necessary medications to law enforcement sweeps, which has put those patients at severe risk of injury or death.”
The pleading argue the “Defendants have utterly failed to meet their obligation to protect the homeless, and their delay in implementing appropriate hygiene measures and populating available housing is unjustifiable,” asking the court mandate that the health of the unhoused be protected, the city/county end sweeps, implement “adequate” hygiene measures outlined by the CDC and take “immediate action” to place unsheltered residents in “safe, sanitary temporary housing.”
To sign up for our new newsletter – Everyday Injustice – https://tinyurl.com/yyultcf9