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Update | Sacramento City Attorney responds to DA's criticism of homelessness efforts

The Sacramento County District Attorney says the city is falling short when it comes to the homelessness crisis, so he’s threatening legal action.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Sept. 8 Update:

Sacramento City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood responded Wednesday to claims made by the County District Attorney that city officials failed to enforce any of its homeless-related ordinances.

She said that though the city has the power to prosecute city code violations — the County District Attorney's community prosecutor has that authority as well.

According to Wood, a Memorandum of Understanding between the City Attorney and the District Attorney's Office from 2006 allows both offices to prosecute misdemeanor and infraction violations of the city code.

"It is the policy of the City Attorney's Office and the District Attorney's Office to equitably share responsibility for prosecuting violations of the City Code in order to improve the quality of life in city neighborhoods," she wrote.

Wood also said she doesn't know which encampments District Attorney Thien Ho is referring to when he said he wanted 16 encampments in the city to be cleared.

Original story:

Sacramento County District Attorney Thien Ho says the city of Sacramento has failed to enforce any of its ordinances related to homeless encampments.

However, a city spokesperson counters, saying they’ve been able to enforce the rules on a largely voluntary basis, without having to issue citations.

In an interview with ABC10 Wednesday morning, District Attorney Ho shared an Aug. 7 email from Sacramento city attorney Susana Alcala Wood, in which she told Ho the Sacramento Police Department “is simply not issuing citations for unlawful camping, unlawful storage, sidewalk obstructions or any Sacramento city code sections related to the homeless encampments. Our data indicates no citations have been referred to our office for prosecution with the exception of a single ‘general release’ citation.”

Her office can’t prosecute cases “if no cases are sent to us,” she wrote in the email.

“Why pass these ordinances if you're not going to enforce them?” Ho told ABC10. “They haven't prosecuted a single case in the last year or ever… I think the community and the public want an answer.”

ABC10 reached out to the city for clarification and comment.

Spokesperson Tim Swanson said the city “has been enforcing its sidewalk ordinance, responding to more than 4,500 calls for service regarding blocked sidewalks and building entrances.”

With the exception of one “general release” citation mentioned by Alcala Wood - which happened in the downtown area on Feb. 4 and involved the unlawful storage of personal property on public property, according to the Sacramento Police Department – none of the other responses resulted in citations that reached the city attorney’s office for prosecution.

The reason, Swanson said, is because in Aug. 2022, city councilmembers passed a resolution directing the city manager and attorney to avoid imposing fines and booking into jail violators of the sidewalk ordinance, whenever possible, and to prioritize “outreach and treatment for people cited under this ordinance.”

Councilmembers voted to rescind that resolution at last week’s meeting, which now allows for stepped-up enforcement.

RELATED: Sacramento leaders approve crackdown on unlawful homeless encampments

“Through the ongoing work of the Department of Community Response, Code Enforcement and the Sacramento Police Department, the City largely has been able to achieve voluntary compliance when addressing these violations without issuing citations,” Swanson said. “The City also has conducted large-scale cleanup activities, most recently at 28th and C streets and on Roseville Road, without needing to issue any citations.”

Ho said he is not satisfied with the city’s response to the homelessness crisis.

“I've said over the last few months that I believe there's been inconsistent enforcement. What I realize is that there's been non-existent enforcement,” he said.

On Monday, Ho sent Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg a letter, threatening legal action if the city does not make major strides in addressing the homelessness crisis within 30 days. The steps Ho outlined in his six-page letter is available HERE.

In response, Steinberg held a news conference Tuesday morning, saying Ho’s letter, “lacks basic understanding of existing shelter management systems and funding structures, and includes a series of demands that would cripple the city financially.”

It is the latest drama in an ongoing exchange between the city and district attorney’s office dating back to late June, when Ho and Sacramento Superior Court Presiding Judge Michael G. Bowman sent letters to city leaders, urging them to clear the encampments around the courthouse and move faster on addressing the homeless crisis across the city.

RELATED: Sacramento County judge calls for more police near courthouse due to homeless issue

“In the past 12 months, my office documented 86 incidents in and around the District Attorney's Office often involving unhoused individuals,” Ho wrote in his June 30 letter to Sacramento Councilmember Katie Valenzuela. “For example: while walking back from court, a young deputy district attorney was accosted and struck in the head by an unhoused individual; while returning from a court run to file documents, a female D.A. employee received threats and hateful racial slurs from an unhoused man regarding the Hijab she wore; a fire was recently set in a nearby alleyway; a man exposed his genitalia across the street from the office,” and more.

At the time, Mayor Steinberg responded to Judge Bowman’s letter, saying, "the City of Sacramento is adding more safe camping spaces at Miller Park in July and continuing to push for more. We must be able to bring people from the sidewalk into safer spaces to connect them with the services they need while providing the relief that our streets and neighborhoods deserve. Downtown and around the Court will be first in line for these new spaces and for cleaning up in the next several weeks."

Ho said the city is not acting fast enough.

He unveiled a survey on July 18, asking Sacramentans to share how homeless encampments have impacted them. Ho said it’s part of an evidence-gathering process to assess whether the city violated laws by failing to enforce ordinances that would mitigate the burgeoning homelessness crisis.

“What we do need is to have compliance with the laws and the rules,” Ho said.

To date, the DA’s office has received nearly 2,000 responses.

“Residents reported they were assaulted at gunpoint by an unhoused individual; a girls’ soccer game was postponed because of hypodermic needles on the field,” Ho said, sharing anecdotes from survey respondents. “A homeowner was diagnosed with PTSD due to the constant harassment and break-ins by unhoused people living in an encampment across the street from her home; children have had to walk through human feces and urine to get to school.”

On July 26, Steinberg met with Ho to propose a partnership between the District Attorney’s Office, Sacramento Superior Court, City of Sacramento and County of Sacramento. Steinberg presented a list of 10 items for those four entities to agree and work on together, some of which would require action and enforcement on the part of the district attorney's office—like prosecuting misdemeanors for people unlawfully camping and violating other city ordinances aimed at addressing homelessness. The 10 items are available HERE.

But on Monday, Ho sent his six-page letter to Mayor Steinberg, putting that responsibility back on the city, saying if the city doesn’t complete Ho’s requested actions within 30 days, he could charge city leaders with misdemeanors for each day the public nuisance persists.

“The city attorney has the sole jurisdiction and power to enforce city codes and ordinances that are misdemeanors, such as unlawful camping, unlawful storage and obstruction of the sidewalk,” Ho told ABC10 on Wednesday—something he has asserted on multiple occasions throughout the summer.

Steinberg, in his Aug. 8 news conference, disagreed.

RELATED: Tension builds between Sacramento County DA, city officials after latest letter criticizing homeless response

“Mr. District Attorney, prosecuting violators – respectfully - that is your job. The city does not prosecute crimes,” Steinberg said. “I understand your frustration. We are all frustrated. But some of us are actually working day and night to try to make the problem better. You are going about this all wrong.”

Contrary to what the mayor said, city attorney Susana Alcala Wood’s Aug. 7 email suggests she can, indeed, prosecute violations of city code and ordinances.

Referring to the lack of citations on the part of Sacramento Police Department, Alcala Wood said, “partnering with your office to support SPD in becoming more comfortable in issuing citations is a good approach because as you know – we can’t prosecute cases if no cases are sent to us.”

She reiterated a desire to have their offices work together for a more uniform response to quality-of-life misdemeanors stemming from encampments.

“When we're talking about partnering with the city, it's hard to play baseball when the other team won't come out of the dugout onto the field,” Ho said. “You have to be an active participant in terms of enforcing the law and complying with the law.”

The debate between the mayor and district attorney has been dragged out into the public by Ho – something he calls encouragement and Steinberg calls a threat.

Ho shared his Monday afternoon email correspondence with Steinberg when Ho delivered the letter.

“Your continued threats against my city will not go unchallenged so long as you are not a full participant in what it will really take to make this problem better,” Steinberg replied. “Let’s have a real public debate. I look forward to it.”

Ho has been criticized for sending a long list of big changes, with threats to potentially sue the city if it doesn’t act within 30 days. This is especially salient, since just last week the Sacramento City Council approved giving City Manager Howard Chan the authority to bypass councilmembers in identifying and launching Safe Ground sites – protected spaces where people experiencing homelessness can camp and access basic sanitation and connect with service-providers. Arguably, that vote represents the most muscle and political will the city has ever put at one time toward resolving the homelessness crisis, and critics say Ho’s threat of legal action complicates that.

But Ho counters saying that, “if it wasn't for my investigation, if it wasn't for the letter, if it wasn't for the encouragement - if you want to call that - that I have pushed the city, are any of these things going to get done?... Do we really think that the city would have followed through with some of the recent actions unless I had put the pressure on the city?”

In his response to Ho’s Aug. 7 letter, Steinberg said Ho “takes credit for programs the city initiated.”

ABC10 asked Ho about the assertion that his timeline is unrealistic and his demands – as the mayor said – “would cripple the city financially.”

“Seven years. We've waited seven years,” Ho said, referring to Steinberg’s tenure as mayor. “Look, these are difficult times. I do not relish the possibility of suing another government entity in order to compel them to do the right thing, to do their job. But with the community response that we have received from the survey and what I've seen firsthand, enough is enough.”

If Ho decides to take legal action, will he charge individual city leaders? What will be his threshold for doing so?

“People have asked, ‘Is this an empty threat?’ And the answer is no.” Ho said. “That email that I received from the city attorney, there's some questions I have. Did the mayor know what was going on, that there's been no enforcement and compliance at all? Does the mayor know that? When did he know it? What did he say? What did he do? And why didn't he tell the public that? And if he didn’t know, my question is going to be, ‘Why not? My goodness, who's driving this train?’”

The answers to those questions, he said, will help him determine whether – and against whom – to take legal action.

“I'm going to watch for the next 30 days, what the city is going to do and what they're not going to do. Because history is any indication, they haven't done much in the last seven years. Where are the safe ground sites? Where is the enforcement? Where is the compliance? Where's any of that?” Ho said.

He said he believes the community – “now stuck between compassion and chaos” – has reached a breaking point when it comes to the homeless crisis.

Meanwhile, as the city manager works to identify and launch new Safe Ground sites, a federal judge has imposed a temporary ban on encampment clearings – or ‘sweeps’ – by the city of Sacramento, citing extreme heat. Eastern District of California Judge Troy L. Nunley issued his decision on Thurs., Aug. 3. It’s effective for 14 days and can be extended. Last year, the same complaint filed by the Sacramento Homeless Union resulted in Nunley granting – and extending – a grace period that lasted nearly two months. The city admitted this week it violated that temporary ban on Friday and Monday due to a communication error with a contractor.

Depending on August’s temperatures, an extension of the temporary ban could complicate the city’s attempt to expedite homelessness solutions and move people into safe ground sites.


District Attorney Thien Ho criticizes Sacramento's enforcement for homelessness

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