Activists representing homeless residents sued the city of Sacramento on Tuesday, asking the county court to block an anti-camping measure from appearing on November ballots.
Activists say the so-called “Emergency Shelter and Law Enforcement Act 2022” violates a federal decision known as Martin v. Boise by criminally punishing homeless people for living outdoors when there is no available shelter space inside the gate.
Civil rights attorney Mark Merin, who is representing the five Sacramento nonprofit groups in the lawsuit, said the group hopes a Sacramento County Superior Court judge will declare the measure illegal and order the city not to put it on the ballot.
“It’s so heavy, so ridiculous, so heinous, that we decided it shouldn’t even be put to a people’s vote,” Merin said. “It is an extreme measure to take an ordinance that has been passed by a public entity and nip it in the bud.”
A judge is expected to order the city to withdraw the ballot measure by the end of the month, according to county elections spokeswoman Janna Haynes. Otherwise, the county will have already finalized the election guide with the anti-camping measure on it.
Merin said he believed the group had enough time to win a court order, but added that the group would campaign against the measure if it proceeded with the election.
If voters pass the measure by simple majority, homeless people camping on city streets would face a misdemeanor for rejecting offers of available space in emergency shelters, but only when there is of available space. The measure would first require the city to create thousands of safe haven beds or campsites.
The The city council amended the measure last week, adding a condition that it only go into effect when the city and county sign an agreement outlining their responsibilities to provide services to homeless people.
But the change doesn’t solve the measure’s problems, said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. The nonprofit has filed a lawsuit with Sacramento Area Congregations Together, Sacramento Housing Alliance, Organize Sacramento and Sacramento Homeless Union.
Even if the county signs an agreement, Erlenbusch said the city and county will not negotiate in a public meeting. He added that voters may not know what a deal covers until the November election.
“It was an undemocratic process and a complete lack of transparency from the start,” Erlenbusch said.
The board first approved the measure in April as a compromise with a more aggressive version proposed by business leaders. Daniel Conway, who is with the Sacramentans for Safe and Clean Streets and Parks and helped draft the business-backed measure, said the group withdrew its proposal in good faith after working with the council.
Conway said supporters are disappointed with homeless advocates trying to block voters from weighing in on the measure.
“This measure will provide safe and secure accommodation space to those in need while ensuring that we have safe and accessible public spaces for all members of the community,” Conway said in a text message statement. “Blocking this measure would only reinforce the status quo which does not work for anyone, homeless or housed.”
The city has around 1,100 shelter places, which are usually full. About 9,300 homeless people live in Sacramento County, according to the Homeless count in 2022.
Anthony Prince, a lawyer for the Sacramento Homeless Union, argued that the measure puts the constitutional rights of homeless people to a vote. The The California Constitution declares people have the right to own and protect property, and to seek and obtain security.
“It’s really about stepping up public opposition to providing housing for people who can’t afford traditional housing,” Prince said. “Whether or not the ballot measure passes will cause damage because it is an issue perpetuating a false narrative.”
In addition to Martin v. Boise, the attorneys also pointed to a ruling temporarily blocking Sacramento from cleaning up homeless encampments as support for removing the measure. A federal judge on July 28 ordered the city to stop sweep the camps until August 25.
As of Tuesday, the city attorney’s office had no statement on the lawsuit to stop the ballot measure, a spokesperson said.
Merin said he hopes the court will schedule a hearing for the trial next week. The city could explain how the measure does not violate the law during a hearing.
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