Since early in the COVID-19 pandemic, a Sacramento County public health ordinance has allowed unhoused individuals to live in their vehicles and tents without penalty. It also banned law enforcement from removing “life necessities” such as tents, food supplies and bicycles from people experiencing homelessness.
But the order expires on June 15, and the health department says there are currently no plans to extend it.
Homeless individuals, activists and medical professionals marched downtown Tuesday to protest the order’s end. They’re worried the return of law enforcement ‘sweeps’ — or the breaking-up of established encampments — will lead to increased stress and health issues for people living outdoors.
“It makes it more difficult for the unhoused population to have a community that they know they’ll be able to receive health care from,” said Duane Kim, a UC Davis medical student with a volunteer-based group called Sacramento Street Medicine.
The original county ordinance states that clearing encampments causes people to disperse throughout the community, “increasing the potential for infectious disease spread.”
During the pandemic, Kim says he and other providers were able to identify seven established encampments where they consistently encountered the same residents. He says this made it easier to provide care: tending to wounds, performing exams and connecting people with clinic appointments as needed.
He says that won’t happen when the ordinance expires, because they won’t be “able to effectively reach everyone we were able to … because they’ll be more spread out.”
Sacramento County spokesperson Janna Haynes said in an email that the order’s expiration “does not automatically translate to sweeps right after” and that they will continue to try to find shelter and housing opportunities for people, while providing testing and vaccination clinics.
Haynes says Project Roomkey, which provides motels for people who need to be isolated due to COVID-19, is still active.
But homeless individuals say they’re wary of a return to sweeps. Twana James, 53, said the COVID-19 ordinance was a huge relief.
“We didn’t have to sit there and wonder when we’ve gotta move or whatever,” she said. “It helped us a lot. We got a lot of things done, a lot of things to help us. It was beautiful.”
She’s worried about how stricter enforcement will affect homeless seniors, who she says often lose their medicine and other vital supplies when they’re forced to relocate.
James is doubtful that the city or county will provide alternatives to established camps.
“It’s hard to believe people are gonna house us, ’cause we’ve heard it for years,” she said.
Some city officials are standing with unhoused people and their advocates. City Councilwoman Katie Valenzuela, who has prioritized housing and homelessness issues since she took office in November, said on social media Tuesday that she wants council to have a discussion about policy if the health order changes.
We can't go back - moving people without a place for them to go is cruel and ineffective.— Katie Valenzuela (@katie4council) June 9, 2021
I asked during council for us to have a conversation ASAP on policy once the health order changes. https://t.co/5lE2UXplqw
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg says he doesn’t want to see camps dispersed after June 15 “unless there is a clear health and safety risk”, and that people should be allowed to sleep in tents or in their cars until there is a better option.
Those alternatives could include tiny homes, shelters, or more ‘safe ground’ sites where people can legally park overnight. Steinberg says city council members are creating a plan for designated sites, to be voted on at a July 20 council meeting.
He says the city would help fund these sites, using some of the $112 million that will be available through the federal American Rescue Plan. Once these sites are up and running, he says the city will “have a greater ability to provide some relief to the business corridors.”
“Because we can say under the law and also consistent with our conscience that we have alternatives for people, and dignified alternatives,” he said. “And then it’s okay for us to say there are places where camping is just not safe, not healthy, and not appropriate.”
The Sacramento Sheriff’s Department did not respond to CapRadio’s request about how its approach to homeless encampments might change after June 15.
But organizers expect that breaking-up camps will again be the norm.
“We’re having this weird shift back, even though we’re not at a place where people are 100%, or even 50% safe,” said Niki Jones, an organizer with the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee.
The organizers who marched Tuesday are asking Sacramento residents to write and call in to their city and county representatives to demand an extension of the order and a more sustainable solution for people experiencing homelessness.
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