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Republican plan would outlaw homeless camps near California schools or parks

Cesar Chavez Plaza on Wednesday, June 1, 2022.
Andrew Nixon
Cesar Chavez Plaza on Wednesday, June 1, 2022.

Sacramento, Elk Grove and Los Angeles passed similar encampment bans last year, despite opposition from advocates who say they harm unhoused residents by separating them from resources.

Republican lawmakers have introduced two bills to ban homeless encampments near schools, day care centers, parks and libraries across California, citing safety concerns as the state’s unhoused crisis pushes deeper into residential neighborhoods.

Newly elected Assembly member Josh Hoover, a Republican from the Sacramento suburb of Folsom, introduced AB 257 this week. It would prohibit people from sitting, lying down, sleeping or storing belongings within 500 feet of the public facilities.

Last month, Republican state Senator Brian Jones of San Diego County proposed SB 31, which would ban those activities 1,000 feet from the same structures. Both bills include punishments, varying from a $25 fine to a misdemeanor charge. Neither requires the offer of available shelter space, though SB 31 calls for providing unhoused people with information about homeless shelters and mental health services.

In an interview with CapRadio, Hoover says his bill doesn’t attempt to solve the emergency of people living on the streets. He says that will take a combination of housing, mental health and substance use services. But it does focus on restoring safety in public places, the lawmaker added.

“That is something that my constituents, especially the families with young children, are really concerned about,” said Hoover, whose 7th Assembly District includes the suburbs of Rancho Cordova, Fair Oaks, Folsom and Citrus Heights. “It’s about the public safety of their children. This is not an anti-homelessness bill.”

The cities of Sacramento, Elk Grove and Los Angeles passed similar encampment bans near community facilities last year. That was despite opposition from advocates and public health professionals, who say the measures harm unhoused residents by separating them from the resource networks they rely on.

“That really hampers our ability to provide ongoing services, mental health services, health care services,” said Flojuan Cofer, director of policy at the Davis-based Public Health Advocates.

Opponents, including the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, say such measures push the problem of encampments from one neighborhood to another without offering long-term solutions.

One longtime political observer says the GOP bills were introduced to make a point, but doesn’t think they’ll go far.

“They’re designed to highlight the problem with Democratic policies,” said Mike Madrid, a Sacramento-based political strategist who has worked with Republican candidates, noting the homelessness crisis has worsened under the state’s Democratic leadership.

“There’s no way the Democrats are going to allow them to succeed. They probably won’t get past their first committee hearing,” Madrid added.

Republican proposals point to Sacramento’s citywide ban

In the press release announcing his bill, Hoover referenced the city of Sacramento’s encampment ban approved last fall. The city ban took place amid a wave of bipartisan enforcement measures proposed and passed in the region before last year’s election.

This past fall, then-Sacramento City Council member Angelique Ashby led the city’s effort to outlaw homeless camps within 500 feet of schools and childcare centers. The council unanimously approved the ban in October with support from some parents and opposition of area homeless advocates.

The vote added schools and childcare centers to a list of facilities on the city’s infrastructure ordinance, which was last updated in 2021. Camping was already banned near the structures on the list, which includes hospitals, colleges and levees.

Cofer, the public health advocate, said the approval was part of a troubling pattern.

“The trend is defining everything as critical infrastructure,” she said.

When then-Council member Ashby proposed the citywide ban, she was a Democratic candidate for state Senate. She was elected to the higher office in November. Despite the similarity between the city and state measures, now-Senator Ashby declined this week to say whether she will support the GOP-led proposals.

“She won’t be offering a comment at this time,” Michelle Sherwood, her spokesperson, said in an email on Wednesday.

The Sacramento council vote last year followed reports one month earlier that a man who appeared to be homeless had harassed children on their way to Sutter Middle School in East Sacramento.

It also followed the August decision by the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors to unanimously approve two ordinances to outlaw homeless encampments along the American River Parkway, near schools, libraries and other areas the board deemed “critical infrastructure.”

Link between crime, encampments not always clear

Last spring, three Democratic state lawmakers, including Assembly member Ken Cooley, whom Hoover defeated in the November election, backed legislation to speed up the removal of camps along the parkway.

The lawmakers cited the death of 20-year-old Emma Roark as one reason for the bill. Roark was killed in a campsite after she walked to the parkway to take photos in late January 2022. A homeless man who had been living along the river was arrested and charged with her rape and murder.

Though concerns over safety have motivated encampment bans, experts who study crime and homelessness say the link between the two is not necessarily clear.

"It's very difficult to say that the encampments themselves are what's creating the crime," Alexis Piquero, a sociologist at the University of Miami who studies policing and homelessness, told NPR last year. He pointed out that camps often go up in marginal parts of town, or near crime-prone locations such as pawn shops or liquor stores.

"What that means is that the area around those encampments is already criminogenic — it has the ingredients, if you will," Piquero said.

No citations issued under Sacramento encampment ban

When she proposed the city measure last fall, Ashby said she hoped it would lead unhoused residents to voluntarily move away from schools and day care centers. She did not expect it would lead to fines or jail time, she said.

That appears to be correct so far, as “no citations have been issued to date,” city spokesperson Tim Swanson wrote in an email.

Since the law went into effect last year, Swanson says the city has received 65 “requests for service” related to encampments within the 500 foot buffer zone of schools, day care and child care centers. Of those requests, 34 have been “closed, with voluntary compliance achieved,” he said.

In 29 other cases, the city’s Department of Community Response is in the process of reaching out to people living in the camps, conducting “education and outreach” and asking them to move. Swanson said two cases are “pending referral” to the police department, meaning residents at those camps have not moved voluntarily after a second visit by city staff.

While the city has not handed out any citations, it has the authority to issue fines ranging from $250 to $25,000 for each day the violation continues, according to the city code on critical infrastructure.

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