Homeless Campers get Day in Court

The long sought trial challenging Sacramento’s illegal camping ordinance has begun as this article from the Sacramento Bee reports.

An excerpt.

More than eight years ago, homeless men and women set up tents and bedrolls in an empty lot near downtown Sacramento to challenge the city’s ordinance against camping outdoors for more than a day at a time.

On Monday, their legal saga finally began to play out in court. Homeless people are plaintiffs in a civil lawsuit against the city of Sacramento, arguing that the camping ordinance is selectively enforced against men and women who have nowhere but the outdoors to sleep. The city’s behavior toward homeless people, they argue, violates the constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.

In September 2009, following years of failed attempts to establish a “safe ground” where homeless people could sleep without fear of citation or being arrested, about two dozen people camped out in a vacant lot at C and 12th streets. They did so with the permission of the property’s owner, civil rights lawyer Mark Merin, who now represents them in court. Police cited the homeless campers, removed their gear and ultimately arrested them, informing them that they were in violation of an ordinance that prohibits camping for more than 24 hours on public or private property without a special permit.

The homeless plaintiffs argue that the city enforces the ordinance in a discriminatory manner, Merin said as the case got underway in a Sacramento Superior courtroom. In legal maneuvers prior to jury selection, he told Judge Christopher Krueger that others routinely violate the ordinance, including Boy Scout campers, children at Fairytale Town and people trying to score concert tickets outside of Golden 1 Center. But in those cases, police look the other way.

“This is not an anti-camping ordinance. It’s an anti-homeless ordinance,” Merin said, designed to drive homeless people “underground” and out of sight.

Chance Trimm, senior deputy city attorney, said officers typically are responding to complaints from the public when they cite people for illegal camping, enforcing an ordinance that has been in effect for 22 years. The city, he said, “did not violate the constitutional rights” of the eight individual plaintiffs listed in Merin’s suit, and has “no custom or practice” of selectively using the ordinance against homeless people.

Homeless plaintiffs are not seeking monetary damages. Instead, they are requesting a declaration and injunction from the court that would lead to the establishment of “safe grounds” where people could live outdoors without police interference.

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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