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Potential lawsuit worries advocates as activity at Sacramento homeless site is investigated

The District Attorney's office says it has not initiated legal action, but rumblings of a lawsuit has unhoused advocates alarmed.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — While the window of Noble Nail Salon reads "relax, unwind, and indulge," those things are harder to do these days as Lily, a worker, says constant fights outside have hurt business.

“A lot of people (are) afraid about it, and they say, 'I don’t want to come to this area,'" Lily said. 

At night, she fears for her safety when she leaves work. That's due to confrontations stemming from a large homeless encampment at the corner of Howe Avenue and Fair Oaks Boulevard, which is across the street from the salon.

It's right at the county and city line. Tensions now seem to have reached a fever pitch between some county and city agencies on how to handle issues.

Advocates for people experiencing homelessness are alarmed the county appears to be gearing up to go to court against the city. 

RELATED: Sacramento residents and local leaders have heated discussion about how to address homelessness in the city

Roughly 30 people have been living in this encampment for the past year. Lily says not much has been done to clear the camp, until last week when county officials from the district attorney and sheriff’s offices held a meeting with nearby businesses and property managers. She said they asked them to share evidence of any illegal activity at the camp, signaling the pursuit of a lawsuit.

The district attorney's office said no legal action has been taken. In a statement, Chief Deputy District Attorney Rod Norgaard said they have received several complaints that the conditions at the camp were impacting the quality of life in the surrounding area.

“We are currently investigating whether those conditions are injurious to health, indecent or offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the free use of property so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property," Norgaard said in a statement. 

However, rumblings of a potential lawsuit are making waves. Elk Grove City Councilmember Pat Hume said he endorses legal action by the county against the city. 

The city is bound by strict protocols. It cannot clear camps unless a shelter bed is available. 

“Too often the Martin vs Boise decision is relied upon to excuse inaction. As I understand it, it only applies to enforcing illegal camping ordinances - doesn’t prohibit enforcement of other illegal activities like drug sales, theft, vandalism, littering, etc.," Hume said in a statement.

Mark Merin, a long-time homeless advocate and attorney, believes such a lawsuit would not have merit because a municipality can only be compelled by a court to act on mandatory duties. In this case, he says city decisions on how to handle homeless issues are discretionary, not mandatory.

“The public loses because public money is being wasted on just useless activity," Merin said.

He instead characterizes the investigation as a political ploy by conservatives Sheriff Scott Jones and District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, who are both seeking higher office. 

“Instead of spending millions on law enforcement to move people from place to place, they should be putting that money into rental housing or construction of housing and get people off the streets," Merin said.

Jones and Schubert did not respond to a request for comment. 

As city and county tensions tighten, Gina Steffani, who has lived on the streets for three years is packing up her belongings and moving from the camp, a place she has lived for five months. She said deputies told her she had until this week to move. 

“I hate this place; I wish I could go to anywhere but this place. It’s too violent here for me, too much violence," Steffani said. 

In her time at the camp, she said she has witnessed someone get shot, a man beaten with a bat, and a young woman assaulted. She said she sleeps with a knife in her hand because men would break into her tent to try to sexually assault her. 

Even with the violence, she says it's the safest place she's been able to find. Where she’ll go next, she doesn’t know.

She’s on the waitlist for the new Safe Ground site at Miller Park.

RELATED: Temporary 60-tent 'Safe Ground' site opens for homeless in Miller Park

“I'm pleading for help, anyone to help," Steffani said. "I’m at the end of my rope right now, and I don’t want to live anymore because I can’t take it anymore being out here.”

Terrence King has been living on the streets for ten years and has spent the last month at the camp. He said most of the people here simply have no place to go.

"I don't understand why people want to be so hateful against people that aren’t doing anything to them but trying to live," King said. 

On any given night, nearly 6,000 people are experiencing homelessness in Sacramento, according to the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness (SRCEH). 

The non-profit advocacy group says the suggestion that the county would sue the city is the latest in a pattern of failures by the two municipalities to work together. 

They published a timeline showing, "A year of slow implementation of homeless plan by city; County not engaged on homeless issues; broken promises; continued criminalization of people experiencing homeless;  broken promises by elected leaders this past year, which saw record homeless deaths of 195 lives."

"2022 needs to be the year for all City Council, for all Board of Supervisors to step up and do their fair share," said SRCEH Executive Director, Bob Erlenbusch. 


Miller Park 'Safe Ground' site for unhoused to open in Sacramento

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