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Sacramento prosecutor sues city over failure to clean up homeless encampments

The top prosecutor of Sacramento, California, is suing the city in an ongoing dispute between local leaders over the city's homelessness crisis and its handling of cleaning up encampments.

After two months of threatening legal action against city officials, Sacramento County District Attorney Thien Ho announced the lawsuit Tuesday. The suit, which was filed along with a companion lawsuit by residents and business owners, alleges that the city failed to enforce local laws and allowed the unhoused population to become a public nuisance.

Ho noted that over the last seven years, the city's unhoused population has caused the city to "collapse into chaos."

"We have an erosion of everyday life," Ho said during a news conference. "We forget what it feels like to be safe and that brings us to this lawsuit... because we need to get people off the streets." Ho added that his office had asked the city to enforce its homeless ordinances, such as issuing citations for unlawful camping, unlawful storage or sidewalk obstructions, and to create sanctioned encampments.

The lawsuit is the latest challenge in California's escalating homelessness and housing shortage crisis as cities remain divided over the issue and struggle to address homeless encampments — which have become increasingly visible along downtown streets and freeways.

Nearly a third of unhoused people in the United States live in California, according to a statewide study released in June. The study, conducted by the University of California, San Francisco Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative, found that almost 90% of unsheltered people reported the cost of housing as the main barrier to escaping homelessness.

Lawsuit comes amid rise in Sacramento's unhoused population

According to data from the Point in Time Count, an annual survey of unhoused people across the nation, Sacramento County had nearly 9,300 homeless people in 2022. Of those people surveyed, 72% slept outdoors and not in shelters.

"The number of people experiencing homelessness on a given night in Sacramento County rose by 67 percent compared to the 2019 Point in Time Count," Sacramento Steps Forward, a nonprofit working to end homelessness, said in a news release.

On Tuesday, Ho said the city's unhoused population has "exploded to over 250%" over the last seven years. Ho's lawsuit described safety concerns from community members and incidents with court and district attorney employees.

The complaint cited a county judge's letter to the city which stated people encountered daily incidents that included "but are not limited to, physical and verbal assault, public sex acts, open fires, nudity, urinating and defecating on walkways."

Dozens of accounts from local residents and business owners living near 14 encampments were also described in the lawsuit and many alleged that their calls for help to city officials were left unanswered.

Some homeowners said they were threatened with firearms at their front door and had their properties broken into and vandalized. And local business owners said they have spent thousands of dollars on security systems after their employees were assaulted by homeless people.

During Tuesday's news conference, Sacramento resident Emily Webb said people living an encampment near her home have trespassed on her property, blocked her driveway and threatened her family.

"We're losing sleep and exhausted from this stress," she said. "We are beyond frustrated and no longer feel comfortable or safe in our home."

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Complaint filed after monthslong feud

Since at least July, Ho has threatened legal action against city officials. Last month, Ho sent a letter to Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg warning that his office would pursue legal action if the city didn't make several homeless-related changes within 30 days.

Ho proposed to clear the city's 16 homeless encampments, create more temporary emergency shelters, and add a daytime camping ban. Ho also wants to give out citations for those who refuse shelter and hire four more city attorneys to enforce laws.

But Steinberg fired back against the district attorney, saying Ho was politicizing the issue and that the district attorney's office had "offered no substantive partnership in which the courts would work with the city to increase the ability to prosecute quality of life crimes."

In response to Ho's lawsuit, Steinberg said in a statement Tuesday that the city has added 1,200 emergency shelter beds, passed ordinances to protect sidewalks and schools, and has created more affordable housing.

The city is trying to avoid "the futile trap of just moving people endlessly from one block to the next," Steinberg added. The mayor said community frustrations are "absolutely justified" but called Ho's actions a "performative distraction."

"The city needs real partnership from the region's leaders, not politics and lawsuits," he said.

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California's homelessness crisis

California has the largest homeless population in the nation, according to the state auditor. The housing crisis and the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic have only exacerbated the need for affordable housing.

The state auditor's office has noted local governments have issued permits to build "less than one-fifth of the housing low-income Californians need." And cities are struggling to address local concerns and the needs of unhoused individuals.

Critics have said encampments are unsanitary and lawless, and blocking people such as children, older residents and disabled people from using public spaces. Critics say allowing people to live outdoors in unsafe conditions is neither humane nor compassionate.

But advocates for homeless people have called the crisis complex and that more investment in affordable housing and services is needed to alleviate the issue. They say camping bans and encampment sweeps unnecessarily traumatize the unhoused population.

Other cities in California, including San Francisco and Santa Ana, have also faced legal challenges for their actions against the homeless population. San Francisco is currently facing a lawsuit over homeless camp sweeps and other enforcement actions.

In 2019, Orange County agreed to a settlement after the county was sued for civil rights violations. More recently, the city of Santa Ana was at the center of a legal battle after the city threatened to fine a Christian group for distributing food to homeless people in the community.

Contributing: Terry Collins and Kayla Jimenez, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Prosecutor sues Sacramento over failure to enforce homeless ordinances