This story appeared in Calmatters
Democratic voters in California cities are pushing mayors and city councils to clear homeless camps. Leaders are responding with new ordinances, from Sacramento to San Diego.
Technically, the encampment of about a dozen tents at W Street and Alhambra Boulevard in Sacramento is illegal.
The tents, tarps and associated debris — clothing, a discarded crib, boxes of rotting food — are blocking the sidewalk in violation of a new city ordinance. Located on a major thoroughfare and across the street from a neighborhood of houses, the camp is one of the most complained about in the city, said Hezekiah Allen with Sacramento’s Department of Community Response.
But on a recent Tuesday morning, his team wasn’t out there threatening to arrest people, or even telling them to move. Instead, city outreach worker Jawid Sharifi was greeting encampment residents, whom he knew by name, with fist bumps. Gently, he inquired whether they’d given any more thought to moving into a city-run trailer park for unhoused residents.
“Whenever you’re ready,” Sharifi told a man in a black hoodie who emerged from a tent. “We’ll come back here in the afternoon also to talk to you guys.”
As in many California cities, Sacramento’s shortage of affordable housing and shelter options makes it difficult to enforce anti-camping laws. But despite obvious challenges, local ordinances designed to crack down on encampments are becoming increasingly common.
Liberal leaders in cities and counties throughout California, pushed to their wits’ end by massive encampments and irate voters, are taking steps to ban camps. Cities including Los Angeles, Sacramento, Elk Grove, Oakland, Santa Cruz and Milpitas — all run by Democrats — passed ordinances in the past three years to target behavior such as setting up tents near schools and other buildings, blocking sidewalks or even camping at all when shelter is available. Officials in San Jose and San Diego are considering similar measures.
“It’s a reflection of where we’ve gotten to as a society on this issue,” said Democratic political strategist Daniel Conway, who led support for a 2022 Sacramento ballot measure that will make large encampments illegal if shelter is available. “Because I think there’s a recognition that the kind of status quo of having over 100,000 people in California living and dying on the streets, it’s terrible for those people…And at the same time there’s this increased sense that people don’t feel safe in their own neighborhoods and their own communities anymore.”
So far, state lawmakers have been reluctant to follow with new anti-camping laws. Two bills backed by Republican legislators would take the unprecedented step of making it illegal for unhoused people to camp in certain areas — including near schools — throughout the entire state. To date, the state’s involvement in encampment management mostly has been restricted to agencies such as Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol clearing camps from state land.
Broader anti-camping measures can be politically and morally fraught, as well as logistically complicated. Activists argue displacing unhoused people from their camps is traumatizing and dangerous to their health.
And such laws run the risk, particularly for liberal lawmakers, of appearing to criminalize homelessness — so far, Democratic legislators by and large have been unwilling to sign on in support.
The new local ordinances, which come with penalties that can include fines or even arrest, have become a flashpoint in a heated debate. Advocates for the rights of unhoused people argue they’re cruel and unconstitutional, while some housed neighbors – sick of seeing human waste, trash and discarded needles in the street – say they don’t go far enough. Enforcement of the new ordinances, which largely is driven by complaints, has been uneven, and most cities don’t have the resources to respond to every encampment.
And then there’s the state’s legendary affordable housing shortage. Sky-high rental prices have forced multitudes of Californians onto the street, where they’re confronted with a dearth of shelter beds, addiction treatment and mental health help. Though anti-camping laws may score political points for officials under immense pressure to clean up their city’s streets, without places for unhoused people to go, they continue to move block by block around our cities.
For example, Sacramento County, which counted more than 9,000 unhoused residents in its 2022 homeless census, has about 2,400 shelter beds.
“The overarching issue is if you don’t have actually acceptable places for people to go, then people can be forced to leave but then they’ll just go somewhere else,” said Jennifer Wolch, a professor emerita at UC Berkeley who specializes in issues surrounding homelessness. “And it will become a problem for another neighborhood.”
Despite what’s going on at the local level — and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s repeated insistence that clearing California homeless camps is a top priority — Democrats in the Legislature have been reluctant to jump on board.
Senate Bill 31, which would make it illegal to sit, lie or sleep within 1,000 feet of a school, daycare, park or library, failed to make it out of the Senate Public Safety Committee and is awaiting reconsideration. The bill, introduced by Senate GOP leader Brian Jones of San Diego County and backed by seven other Republicans, has just one Democratic co-author – Sen. Bill Dodd of Napa. Representatives from 15 different organizations across the state spoke out against the bill during its committee hearing last month, calling it “misguided” and accusing supporters of prioritizing criminalization instead of health and safety.
Assembly Bill 257, another GOP bill that would make it illegal to camp within 500 feet of a school or daycare center, also was voted down in committee. Author Josh Hoover, a Folsom Republican, tried to assuage critics by narrowing its focus — it no longer applies to parks or libraries and now prohibits “camping” instead of “sitting” or “lying” — but to no avail. Even so, it’s not dead yet. The bill was granted reconsideration and Hoover remains hopeful.
“I personally have found needles in the park where my kids play, and I think this is something that most of the public finds unacceptable,” he said in an interview. “It needs to be addressed immediately statewide.”
At least two newly elected Democratic lawmakers voted for local anti-camping ordinances while serving on city councils last year, Sen. Angelique Ashby of Sacramento and Assemblymember Stephanie Nguyen of Elk Grove. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re sold on a statewide ban.
“I believe that addressing these concerns at a local level rather than a statewide level is the best approach,” Nguyen said in an emailed statement.
Ashby refused an interview request and her office wouldn’t say whether the senator supported the statewide efforts.
City leaders also don’t necessarily want the state to step in.
“When it comes to where do you enforce a no-encampment zone, I feel like that should be a city decision,” said San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan.
San Jose City Council voted in 2021 to target homeless encampments near schools for removal, and since then has cleared 42 school-zone camps. Mahan said the experiment has been successful, as people have agreed to move from the school zones without creating “a huge tax on city resources or a big controversy.”
But Shaunn Cartwright, a local advocate for the rights of unhoused people, said many of those displaced from school zones just move their camps to other locations in the city.
“All it does is stigmatize unhoused people as these are people we can’t trust around children,” she said of the city’s policy. “And it’s ridiculous because many unhoused people obviously are parents.”
Mahan is considering eventually implementing broader no-camping zones in places like key business districts, but only after his city increases its temporary housing capacity.
Brigitte Nicoletti with the East Bay Community Law Center said in addition to being a “really cruel and shortsighted way of addressing homelessness,” ordinances that ban camping when there’s not enough shelter may violate unhoused people’s constitutional rights. Another problem: When clearing encampments, many cities will offer shelter not everyone can accept – whether it’s because of mental or physical health conditions, or because it would force them to leave behind beloved pets or important possessions.
“It’s really just pandering to people who are freaked out by health and public safety issues,” she said of the uptick in no-camping ordinances, “but it does nothing to address people’s actual needs.”
Several factors led to the growth of massive homeless encampments throughout the state and prompted the recent spate of anti-camping ordinances. In addition to an overall increase in the state’s homeless population – it’s estimated more than 170,000 unhoused people lived in the state last year, compared to just over 150,000 in 2019 – many cities stopped clearing homeless camps during the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing them to grow and become more entrenched.
A 2018 ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals also changed the game. In Martin vs. Boise, the court ruled cities cannot penalize someone for sleeping on public property if no other options exist – which many cities have interpreted to mean they can’t clear an encampment unless they have enough shelter beds for the displaced residents.
Cities’ new anti-camping ordinances take advantage of a loophole in that ruling – even if they have no space in their shelters, they still can make it illegal to sleep outside in certain places or at certain times.
But no liberal California leader wants to be accused of “criminalizing” homelessness. So most are pairing anti-camping ordinances with a push for resources. Mahan of San Jose wants to build 1,000 new temporary housing units this year before he expands no-camping zones. Santa Cruz’s no camping ordinance has yet to take effect, and won’t do so until the city can create 150 new shelter beds and establish a place for unhoused people to store their belongings.
Sacramento’s Measure O, passed by voters in November, includes a requirement to set up more shelter beds before cracking down further on camps – something city leaders plan to achieve via a new partnership with the county.
“It’s first up to the society through its government to provide safe dignified alternatives to people,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who has become one of the state’s most high-profile examples of a progressive politician caught between the pressures to clear camps and to respond to homelessness with compassion. “And if that test is met…to say people cannot choose to live out on the streets.”
Enforcement of these ordinances presents a tricky question: How do cities get unhoused people to comply without punishing them for having no home? Approaches vary widely throughout the state – and even within cities.
San Diego is trying to do even more. Last year, Mayor Todd Gloria directed police to target anyone who had a tent up during daytime hours. But follow-through was “somewhat uneven,” Gloria admitted in an interview, due to police understaffing and COVID-related issues. Now he’s backing a proposal that would prohibit all encampments on public property when shelter is available, and bar camps near schools and shelters even when it’s not.
“The city is providing more solutions than it ever has,” Gloria said. “And I think as a result the taxpayers helping to fund this should have a right to expect safe and hygienic public spaces.”
The Sacramento ordinances are enforced selectively, generally based on complaints made by residents calling 311. The city has about 20 outreach workers, like Sharifi, who try to connect people to shelters and warn occupants of problem camps that they need to move. If they refuse, police or code enforcement may take over.
The intention isn’t to be punitive, said Assistant City Manager Mario Lara.
“We’ve responded to thousands of calls,” he said. “We’ve not issued any citations or any arrests.”
Though encampments still dot the city, some Sacramento residents say they’ve seen a little improvement. Last year, the route Amy Gardner’s 8th-grade daughter walked to Sutter Middle School got so bad that she and other parent and community volunteers formed a group to escort kids past an environment she characterized as rife with snarling dogs, human waste, broken glass, needles and people in the throes of mental health crises.
It took months, but the city finally cleared the main camp on the route, under an Interstate 80 overpass, Gardner said. The kids now feel safe walking to school.
But the problem didn’t go away.
“The camps have shifted and moved,” she said. “It’s not that everyone got shelter.”
Some people from under the overpass relocated about eight blocks over, where more than a dozen tents recently lined 29th Street. Damian Newton, who has been homeless for a dozen years, was one of them. The city told him and his neighbors the bridge they slept under is off-limits because it’s “critical infrastructure,” Newton said.
“They just didn’t want us in sight,” 38-year-old Newton said. “What damage have we really done to schools? What damage have we really done to bridges?”
Soon, he’ll have to move again. As he talked to a reporter on a recent Thursday, while sitting on a bare mattress in the doorway of his tent, Newton said the California Highway Patrol had been by that morning to tell him and other camp residents they had to leave their new home within four days.
Newton said he’s been offered a shelter bed before, but after seeing friends accept and then end up back on the street, he doesn’t see the point. Activists and those who have lived in shelters throughout California say residents sometimes chafe under a shelter’s strict rules, feel uncomfortable or unsafe there or get frustrated by the lack of options to transition from there into permanent housing.
So where will Newton go next? He’s not sure. Maybe across the street, until someone complains and he has to pack up again.