Judge: City of Sacramento Sweeps of Homeless Camps Violate County COVID-19 Health Orders

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

By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief

SACRAMENTO – It may not have been everything the Sacramento Homeless Union wanted, but the determined group scored a major victory here Thursday afternoon when Sacramento Superior Court Judge Laurie Earl issued a Writ of Mandate, requiring the City of Sacramento to comply with County Health Officer’s orders prohibiting the clearing of homeless encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The court win may well be the first for the unsheltered in California. Although every county is different as far as how they treat the homeless, reportedly, San Diego unhoused forces are about to file an action to stop the city from forcing homeless into a dangerously one giant-size, overcrowded shelter.

The Sacramento Homeless Union has been fighting in court for months for this particular win, charging that the city’s endless “sweeps,” breaking up small to large encampments by the unhoused, was not just cruel, but contrary to the county’s orders – based on CDC guidelines – not to do it.

The sweeps, said the CDC, can spread the coronavirus through the community, increasing spread outside the homeless encampments, and endangering the community at large.

Sacramento Homeless Union President Crystal Sanchez welcomed the ruling: “Today is an amazing day where Justice prevailed for our unhoused community. Today the abuses of sweeps by our municipalities have been deemed by a court of law to be unlawful. Covid-19 has taught us all a lesson that each and every one of us could be facing what our unhoused face daily.”

According to the Sacramento Homeless Union – and backed by the court – the county health order mandates local governments “to allow people who are living unsheltered, in cars, R.V.’s and trailers, or in encampments to remain where they are unless the people living those locations are provided with real-time access to individual rooms or housing units for households with appropriate accommodations including for disabilities and b) a clear plan to safely transport those households.”

The court did exclude from the order Sacramento City Hall, where dozens of unsheltered people camp nightly, especially during the Winter.

The city fought till the end – arguing that the city doesn’t have to follow the CDC guidelines and county health orders.

The city also claimed, in a live hearing less than a week ago, that the CDC and county health order don’t actually “define” what an encampment is, suggesting the city can disregard the health order because of that.

Additionally, the city – despite a mound of photos, declarations/witness statement, media coverage – even claimed it was not breaking up unsheltered camps.

“Sacramento City has a policy of keeping people in place,” said city lawyers in a hearing before the court a week ago. “We’re leaving them alone,” the city said, acting as if they weren’t sure if encampments being swept recently were even in the city.

“The City and county are prohibited from taking down these encampments,” insisted Sacramento Homeless Union chief counsel Antony Prince at the hearing.

“Although we did not get everything we sought, we are pleased that the Court has ordered the City to obey the County Health Officer’s Order which expressly warns that ‘clearing encampments causes people to disperse throughout the community…increasing the potential for infectious disease spread.’ The Union got a victory here, but the fight won’t be over until we have won dignity and housing for all,” said Prince.

Judge Earle put the matter to rest as to whether the city can – as they have for many years and decades, long before COVID-19 – disturb the sleep and roust those with no homes in the middle of the night.

“Because the evidence shows that the City has violated this order,” ruled Judge Earl, “a writ of Mandate will issue ordering it to comply.”

The union lost this day on another couple of points.

Regarding hygiene, the court denied the city or county have to provide toilets or handwashing.

“Petitioners also seek a writ of mandate ordering the City and County to comply with CDC guidelines regarding implementation of hygiene measures in homeless encampments…guidelines suggest actions government entities can take to protect homeless persons from the spread of COVID-19, including ensuring homeless encampments have access to restroom facilities or, if such facilities are not available nearby, providing access to portable toilets with hand washing facilities for encampments of more than IO people,” wrote the court.

And the union charged in moving papers that the city has made big promises about finding motel rooms and other housing for the unhoused, but has failed to do so, not offering housing to people when they are rousted.

But the court said the document only provides guidance and “does not impose a mandatory duty,” adding “Although the Court is sympathetic to the plight of the homeless, Petitioners identify no law that imposes a mandatory and ministerial duty on the City and County to place all homeless residents in temporary housing or to commandeer a sufficient number of hotel rooms to do so.”

”In a perfect world, and pandemic or no pandemic, all people would have access to a basic level of clean and safe housing. Petitioners fail to convince, however, that the law imposes a mandatory duty on the City and County to create such a perfect world,” the judge opined.

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About The Author

Veteran news reporter and editor, including stints at the Sacramento Bee, Woodland Democrat, and Vietnam war correspondent and wire service bureau chief at the State Capitol.

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