Legal fights expand on CA homeless camps

This story appeared on Calmatters

A man walks his dog through a homeless encampment near Highway 180 in west Fresno on Feb. 11, 2022.

From CalMatters homelessness policy reporter Jeanne Kuang:

Fed up with homeless encampments, California local officials are seeking guidance from the nation’s most powerful judges. 

In a legal brief filed Tuesday with the U.S. Supreme Court, the California State Association of Counties and League of California Cities told the justices that a string of federal court rulings over the last five years that restrict cities’ abilities to sweep camps and order residents off the streets have made addressing health and safety concerns “unworkable.”

“The State of California and its cities and counties are engaged in unprecedented efforts to address homelessness through the creation of significant new policy initiatives and funding investments,” the league and association wrote. “However, camping ordinances can be a useful tool in appropriate circumstances in addressing the complex conditions that exist in our homeless populations.”

California cities made a similar appeal in 2019, but the court declined to hear that case. 

It all stems from a landmark 2018 decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in an Idaho case that was binding on California local governments. Judges then decided that it’s unconstitutional to criminally penalize people camping in public when they lack “access to adequate temporary shelter.” 

Since then, cities have often landed in court when trying to enforce camping bans, but the organizations said those cases haven’t clarified what’s allowed or required. Also since 2018 and during the COVID pandemic, the state’s homelessness crisis has only worsened, with more than 170,000 unhoused people this year. Most of them are unsheltered, living outdoors because most cities don’t have enough shelter beds. In some cases, unhoused people refuse available shelter beds for a variety of personal circumstances. 

The crux of the legal debate now, CalMatters reported this month, is what makes a person “involuntarily homeless” — and whether cities can sweep camps and cite residents even if it doesn’t have sufficient shelter to accommodate each resident’s individual circumstances. The California associations filed the amicus brief supporting an Oregon city which the 9th Circuit this year ruled cannot enforce a camping ban because the city doesn’t have enough shelter beds for its entire population. 

On Wednesday, more California officials weighed in. The state’s sheriff’s association and police chiefs association, as well as a group of Orange County cities, filed their own brief arguing the Idaho ruling “may have expanded the rights of those suffering from homelessness [while] the rights of business owners, taxpayers, children and other housed citizens to clean, safe, drug-free streets and public areas have been completely ignored.” 

Sacramento County District Attorney Thien Ho filed his own brief, too. And San Diego, which recently began enforcing a sweeping new camping ban, will sign on to a brief being circulated by the city of Seattle, a spokesperson for Mayor Todd Gloria said.

Will Knight, decriminalization director at the National Homelessness Law Center, previously told CalMatters he doesn’t think the Supreme Court will take up the case, given that the question has not come up prominently in federal courts in other parts of the country. Knight criticized cities for trying to get around the technical boundaries of the Idaho ruling and said they should focus instead on expanding individualized housing options for residents. 

Meanwhile, political pressure is mounting on cities to more strictly enforce their camping ban. Democratic big-city mayors and Gov. Gavin Newsom have blasted federal judges for rulings that halt encampment sweets. 

On Tuesday, Ho sued the city of Sacramento, accusing it of inadequately enforcing a number of recent camping bans such as those near schools and of ignoring residents’ requests to safety issues at camps. 

City officials have not used criminal citations in the recent bans, instead opting for “voluntary compliance” that does include ordering people to move their tents. Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg called Ho’s suit a “performative distraction.”

Homelessness increased more than 60% in Sacramento County between 2019 and 2022, to 9,300 individuals on any given night; the city and county combined have about 2,400 shelter beds.

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Newsom calls out Big Oil at UN

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at an event in anticipation of signing a bill on his proposed oil profit penalty plan in Sacramento on March 28, 2023. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr. , CalMatters
Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at an event on his proposed oil profit penalty plan in Sacramento on March 28, 2023. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr. , CalMatters

From CalMatters climate reporter Alejandro Lazo:

California’s governor took more swings at the oil industry on Wednesday, this time in an address at the United Nations, telling world leaders that “the oil industry has been playing each and every one of us in this room for fools.”

“This climate crisis is a fossil fuel crisis,” Newsom said during his speech, which drew the loudest applause of any speaker at the Climate Ambition Summit. 

The summit, part of Climate Week NYC and hosted by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, aimed to highlight the “movers and doers” who are advocating for policies to attain the 2015 Paris Agreement’s global targets. Newsom was the only U.S. representative who spoke at the summit.

The oil industry, Newsom said, “has been buying off politicians.”

  • Newsom: “They’ve been denying and delaying science and fundamental information…Their deceit and denial going back decades has created the conditions that persist here today.”

Catherine Reheis-Boyd, chief executive of the Western States Petroleum Association, answered back in a statement.

  • Reheis-Boyd: “Repeatedly choosing demonization over collaboration is not the way to effective climate policy.”

California filed a civil lawsuit last week seeking to hold ‘Big Oil’ accountable financially for contributing to “climate change-related harms in California,” and deceiving the public. 

Ryan Schleeter of the Santa Rosa-based Climate Center said the governor needs to do more to phase out oil and gas production and refining. “California still extracts millions of barrels of oil every year and we’re home to some of the largest and most polluting refineries in the nation,” he said.

Newsom said he will sign two landmark climate accountability bills, Senate Bills 253 and 261, though he indicated that he intended to “clean up” some of the language of SB 253, which would require big corporations to report their greenhouse gas emissions. 

“We certainly hope that’s not an opportunity for groups like the California Chamber of Commerce to swoop in and weaken the bill,” Schleeter said.

What happens to migrants sent to CA?

Pablo Silva at the parking garage where he states he slept on his first night in Sacramento, after arriving via a chartered flight from San Antonio, Texas, with a group of fellow migrants. Sept. 9, 2023. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

Pablo Silva at the parking garage where he says he slept on his first night in Sacramento, after arriving from San Antonio with a group of fellow migrants. Sept. 9, 2023. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

On Tuesday morning, 40 asylum seekers from Venezuela and El Salvador arrived in Los Angeles from Texas, the 14th bus since mid-June. 

It’s not always clear who sends the buses, though Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in June the state would continue the practice until President Biden secures the U.S.-Mexico border. 

But once migrants arrive, what happens to them? 

CalMatters’ Justo Robles tells the story of Pablo Silva, who was in an early group of migrants. He arrived in Sacramento last September from Venezuela, which he left after he refused to join the National Liberation Army, a Marxist guerrilla group from Colombia. 

He and four other men who were processed at the border in Texas were given paperwork and an address for a shelter in downtown Sacramento that wouldn’t take them in. 

The obstacles didn’t end there, Justo reports: He couldn’t get a regular job without a work permit, which would take months. And even when he had one, was accused of forging it. The struggle, and distance from his family, took a toll on his mental health.  

  • Silva: “When I arrived here I had nothing … Now I have a work permit, but I haven’t had much luck finding a job. I don’t want to take anybody’s job; I just want an opportunity.”

Still, Silva has been able to make some progress. Read more about his journey


CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Emulating other California politicians, Gov. Gavin Newsom is attacking the oil industry to burnish his national political image.

CalMatters columnist Jim Newton: Recent decisions by cities in the Inland Empire signal a more critical eye on the warehouse boom.


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