To overrun homeless encampments, California cities must provide shelter. But what that means is debatable

“We cannot force our way through homelessness; “It’s not the right way to address homelessness,” Takeuchi said.

But for those who refuse to provide shelter or willingly flaunt other laws such as those prohibiting drug use in public, Takeuchi said: “That’s enough. Government intervention has to happen.”

The new “safe sleeping site” — an asphalt-fenced plot of land containing 136 two-person tents — is located in a city maintenance lot located at the southern edge of popular Balboa Park. The park and areas near schools were the city’s first implementation targets.

The city-funded site provides two meals a day, showers, and services to help residents search for housing. Couples can stay together. People can stay indefinitely.

It’s a new option in a city that has historically only offered large group shelters, which many reject or find inappropriate. Mayor Todd Gloria said it comes with the “expectation” that more people will choose to live on the streets when beds become available.

“We’ve put in a huge amount of carrots and need a few more sticks,” he said. “It is the expectations of the taxpayers who fund these efforts that people benefit from.”

As of last week, the site had seven open tents, a Gloria spokesperson said. Other shelters in the city are almost full on any given night, said Sofia Cardenas, director of data and compliance at Project Alpha, a San Diego nonprofit that runs five other shelters.

Nearby cities have reported increases in encampments on their borders in the wake of San Diego’s new law, and Cardenas said nonprofit outreach workers are having trouble finding clients spread throughout the city.

Takeuchi acknowledged that when officers approach someone to warn them or cite them for violating the camping ban, they don’t necessarily know if there is a place suitable for that person’s specific circumstances.

“It’s not as simple as, ‘Okay, there’s a bed available for every person we come into contact with because there are certain beds that are not available for certain groups of people,'” he said.

In considering the new law, city attorneys noted in a legal memorandum (PDF) that some shelter options would be inadequate and put the city at risk of violating Idaho’s ruling — such as offering a bunk bed to an elderly or disabled person.

In the first month of implementation, Takeuchi said that out of 85 warnings, only three people told police they would agree to provide shelter, although interested people can contact the city directly and do not have to accept the offer directly from police.

Cardenas said the city should have increased the number and diversity of shelter beds before implementing it, and said current shelter spaces, including the tent site, may still not be suitable for seniors or those with disabilities or mental illness.

“Mostly we see people wandering the streets” trying to avoid police, Cardenas said. “When we ask them to accept the sanctioned camps… is this the best we can do? Accept this, or go to prison?

Cities assert they have increased options. In San Diego, Gloria said officials have another sanctioned campsite scheduled to open this year that will be able to hold up to 400 people, and they have relaxed rules around group shelters in the city so residents can bring a pet and not be required to be on the lookout. . .

Like other California politicians on the issue, Gloria criticized activists who called shelter offers inadequate and called them “a very small number of voices that seem to enjoy seeing encampments on the streets.”

He added: “This is never enough for them.”

“Better for whom?”

Even if shelters are open, unhoused people sometimes choose not to participate.

Under the din of the Interstate 99 bridge along the edge of Sacramento’s urban core, a man emerged from his tent on a recent weekend morning and sat down at a makeshift breakfast table, shaking a box of cereal.

The man, who identified himself only as Eric D., said: The 53-year-old said he had lived in this five-tent camp for about a month. His last campsite was a few blocks away near the highway exit, and highway patrol officers told him he had to leave. The officers gave him a brochure with information about social services and shelter; “Most of the information, a lot of homeless people already know,” he said.

“Better for whom?” He said when asked if he would consider a shelter better than a camp. “It depends on the individual.”

People and dogs walk between platform shelters at a non-congregate emergency housing site in Chico on September 6, 2023. (Fred Graves/Calmaters)

Before the freeway exit location, Eric said he stayed at a shelter near downtown Sacramento for about two months, but said he was kicked out after missing curfew three times. The third time, he said he was staying with relatives while attending a family funeral. He now walks or takes the bus two miles from the tent to the community college where he takes classes twice a week, and a social worker visits occasionally to help him look for an apartment.

Not all shelter experiences are comfortable and some people resent the rules, Eric said. If he tried again, he wanted to be near a community college.

“A lot of people are living a harder life than they need to be,” he said of life on the streets. “I, I can’t stand it.”

His neighbor, Joel Martinez, picked up trash on the sidewalk before sitting down to light a cigarette.

Martinez (63 years old) considers himself responsible for a friend he met on the streets. She lives around the corner in a truck, and that morning she was leaning against the partially dressed hood of the car, talking to herself. Martinez is worried about being left alone.

“It speaks to people we don’t see or hear,” he said. “People were taking advantage of her. I don’t know if she would fit in the shelter or not.”

However, Martinez said he is trying to convince her to move inland or to a sanctioned camp with him.

He said he understands why cities are moving to ban encampments, and said that not all residents keep their encampments clean, though some, he said, “are policing ourselves.”

“I know people don’t like to be reminded of homelessness,” he said. “But it’s here, and it seems like the coronavirus has really brought it all to light.”

Asphalt near the airport does not count

Federal courts rarely determine the appropriateness of certain types of shelter — although in one extreme case a judge said some things simply aren’t taken into account.

In Chico, a group of unhoused residents sued the city in 2021 over its enforcement of a camping ban on any public property. At the time, the city had 120 group shelter beds (capacity has shrunk during the pandemic) and more than 570 homeless residents.

In response to the lawsuit, officials opened a temporary sanctioned camp that summer where residents were allowed to park trailers or pitch tents. The city said it could accommodate its entire homeless population.

Aircraft and control tower in the distance.
Airplanes and the control tower at Chico Regional Airport in Chico on September 6, 2023. (Fred Graves/Calmaters)

Federal District Court Judge Morrison C. England — finding that the camp was a strip of asphalt next to the local airport on the outskirts of town, with a single awning erected for shade — was not convinced (PDF).

“This raises the question: What is a shelter?” he wrote, before quickly dismissing Chico’s “asphalt runway, which has no roof, no walls, no water, no electricity.”

Chico officials closed the airport site less than three months later, and last year they settled the lawsuit by agreeing to build a “pallet shelter” — 177 tiny homes — where those camping out in a restricted spot could be directed by outreach workers or police.

Under the settlement, when the city plans to sweep an encampment (PDF), it must count the number of people living there and make sure there are enough shelter beds open for them, then notify the plaintiffs’ attorneys and make calls to provide shelter to the residents. This process may take 17 days.

More than 300 people have stayed at the new site since April, either because the city was about to overrun their campsites or because they called the city shelter entry line themselves, said Amber Abney Bass, executive director of the nonprofit Jesus Center that was hired. By the city to operate the site. More than 140 of them left because they either violated the program’s rules or did not return to their beds for 72 hours, prompting the shelter to give the place to someone else, she said. Fourteen of them have moved to more stable housing.

Abney-Bass said she’s glad this case has prompted the city to create more beds, but she’s concerned that with congregate shelters losing their people, some will remain on the streets thinking “nothing else is good enough” compared to a tiny house situation.

Her nonprofit has evaluated more than 100 other people living on the streets since the settlement who were refused shelter if they couldn’t access the tiny homes site.

Pending further judicial directives

In another case, in Sacramento, a federal judge temporarily halted encampment raids during two heat waves since last year, after advocates pointed out in court that the city was directing unhoused people to a sanctioned encampment on unshaded asphalt. The site provides meals, showers, restrooms and social services, City Attorney Susana Alcala-Wood said.

The city asked the Ninth Circuit to evaluate the matter.

“In order to advise my client on what constitutes adequate shelter, I need the court to tell me,” Alcala-Wood said.

For the most part, Sacramento has not issued criminal citations against unhoused people who violate new camping restrictions passed last year, including bans on camping near schools or blocking sidewalks. Instead, Assistant City Manager Mario Lara said city workers are focusing on “voluntary compliance,” which includes ordering people to move their tents.

This has angered residents and other local politicians who want the camps evacuated faster and more frequently. Sacramento County District Attorney Thein Ho threatened city officials with legal action if they did not enforce the camping ban more aggressively.

Whether California’s shelter options are “suitable” alternatives to encampments remains an open question. This is the next legal frontier for cities hoping to impose camping restrictions, said Will Knight, decriminalization director at the National Homelessness Law Center, which opposes the ban.

Knight defines adequate shelter as understanding the personal reasons a person might reject a traditional shelter bed — including proximity to their child’s school, transportation options or the desire to be with a pet or partner.

“It has to be done on a very human and individual level,” he said regarding enforcing the camping ban.

Meanwhile, the Idaho ruling on which the debate is based may come before the Supreme Court. The city of Grants Pass, Oregon, after losing its bid to enforce a camping ban in a similar case before the Ninth Circuit this year, has appealed (PDF) to the Supreme Court.

Alcala Wood, of Sacramento, said she is among a number of city attorneys who plan to sign a memorandum asking the U.S. Supreme Court for its opinion.

“Is a shelter inappropriate if it doesn’t provide a place for your pets? Is a shelter inappropriate if it doesn’t provide you with a place to store all of your excess personal belongings? Should we allow anyone to be able to cook food in the shelter? What about open flames? These are all questions to which we do not have answers.”

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