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Sacramento could be first city to establish 'right to housing'

The dorm at the shelter on X Street in Sacramento, Monday, Sept. 20, 2021.
Andrew Nixon
The dorm at the shelter on X Street in Sacramento, Monday, Sept. 20, 2021.

The plan could help the city comply with federal court rulings that have prevented local governments from imposing anti-camping ordinances if there isn’t enough housing or shelter.

Sacramento would become the first city to establish a legal right to housing for homeless residents under a proposal announced Monday by Mayor Darrell Steinberg. It would obligate unhoused people to accept housing or shelter when offered, making way for the potential clearing of more homeless encampments by 2023.

The plan, if passed by the City Council, would be the first of its kind nationally, and would force the city to deal with a growing homelessness crisis that has seen more than 10,000 people sleeping on the streets throughout a given year. It could also help the city comply with federal court rulings that have prevented local governments from imposing anti-camping ordinances if there isn’t enough housing or shelter to offer homeless residents.

“People should be indoors,” Steinberg told reporters during a video press conference. “We’re so numb to (homelessness) now that we forget how inhumane it is.”

The plan would require unhoused people to accept shelter when offered at least two alternatives. If they decline, they would be moved, even if they’re on public property.

Currently, Sacramento does not have enough housing or shelter beds to require homeless people to move from public property, unless there is an immediate safety hazard.

Local governments cannot arrest or cite people for sleeping on the street or force them to move without first offering them shelter, the result of a 2018 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Martin v. Boise.

Civil and disability rights groups have opposed similar proposals previously for their potential to fine or jail homeless residents or force them to be held in a place they don’t want to be, including shelters.

Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, praised the current draft, saying it “moves beyond symbolism and makes the right to housing very real.”

However, he cautioned that Sacramento will need to pick up the pace of creating new shelter and safe ground spaces before any law could kick in.

“At the rate they’re creating those programs, there’s no way that they’ll be ready to enforce anything in 2023,” Erlenbusch said.

This summer, the City Council passed a comprehensive plan to build more shelters, tiny homes and city-sanctioned campgrounds. So far, however, only a few sites have opened.

The draft ordinance says Sacramento will provide enough housing units by Jan. 1, 2023, the mayor added temporary shelters will need to be used as the city builds more permanent homes.

“Given how much housing there needs to be produced to accommodate the homeless population,” Steinberg said, “housing for purposes of this ordinance may include temporary shelters such as a tent, recreational vehicle trailer or tiny home in a city approved location, as long as the temporary shelter placement includes a plan for each person to obtain permanent housing.”

Notably, Steinberg said police would not be involved in enforcing the requirement that homeless people move into housing or a shelter. Instead, he said the effort would be led by the city’s Department of Community Response “using a trauma informed care approach.”

As proposed, the ordinance would only cover people who were housed in Sacramento for at least one year before becoming homeless. Steinberg said that requirement is needed in order to prevent the city from becoming a “magnet” for homeless people around the region.

If passed, the ordinance would allow a homeless person who qualifies to file a lawsuit against the city to be given housing.

Steinberg has long advocated for cities to be required to house all residents. In his role leading a state homlessness task force two years ago, he called on all cities and counties to build more shelter beds — and then legally obligate homeless people to accept one if offered.

The mayor said on Monday that local governments don’t move fast enough to solve the crisis on their streets because they have no legal requirements to house people. He said his proposed ordinance could change that — at least in Sacramento.

“I want to move the needle and having the law behind us is important,” Steinberg added.

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed Assembly Bill 2405, a similar law which would have created a “right to safe, decent, and affordable housing” mandate for families and children at risk of falling into homelessness.

In his veto letter, Newsom called it “a laudable goal” but said he couldn’t support the bill’s $10 billion annual cost.

“Moreover, I have always maintained that our efforts must come with greater accountability and better results. Although well-intentioned, this bill is duplicative of existing efforts and may ultimately force us to expend resources without commensurately creating new housing or services for people experiencing homelessness,” he wrote.

The mayor’s plan will be discussed at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, though no vote has been scheduled.

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