By Dr. Flojaune Cofer | Special to the OBSERVER

(OPINION) – Sacramento is suffering from a homelessness crisis that requires real policy and public health solutions, including a massive increase in affordable housing and social services.

Sacramentans do NOT require Measure O — a bad-faith effort that will increase dangerous “sweeps” against unsheltered residents who have nowhere to go.

Measure O provides no affordable housing, no increase in services, and no funding toward actual solutions. Instead, it prioritizes the demands of wealthy business owners at the expense of poor communities of color and people living without shelter.

Measure O simply sweeps people away, without saying where.

According to a January 2022 count, about 9,300 people experience homelessness in Sacramento County on a given night. Yet the city and county have just 2,400 shelter beds and spaces, all of which are typically occupied.

Our federal courts have found it is unconstitutional for a city to enforce an anti-camping ordinance when there are not any available shelter beds.

But business interests want to defy the courts. They want to force the city to perform unconstitutional sweeps, or face lawsuits from residents.

Proponents claim that the 600 shelter “spaces” added as a result of the measure — spaces that are smaller and less accommodating than many jail cells — would allow the city to resume sweeps. But even if we filled them, the city would still have nearly 4,000 people without access to shelter.

This measure isn’t just illegal and cruel. It would bankrupt the city, forcing officials to spend up to $5 million per year on enforcement, plus whatever legal bills they will definitely incur from being sued.

We don’t have enough money to serve our unhoused population now. What sense does it make to siphon $5 million more away from real solutions? How wasteful and counterproductive.

It’s not “gaslighting,” “race-baiting,” or “race-lighting” to point out the obvious. Homelessness disproportionately impacts people of color, especially Black and indigenous women. Here in Sacramento County, Black residents are nearly four times as likely to experience homelessness as white residents. For indigenous Sacramentans, it’s between six and seven times as likely.

If the business community truly wanted to support these populations, they would work with public health professionals and homeless service providers on actual solutions, such as raising the minimum wage, increasing affordable housing supply and strengthening renters’ protections.

Instead, they have done the exact opposite.

In the last few years, a business leader who supports Measure O has made himself the public face of the fights against both renters’ rights and a higher minimum wage. Another fought against rent control when it was on the ballot in 2020.

Being Black or a woman or growing up in poverty doesn’t prevent someone from supporting policies that are racist, sexist and classist. When we have business leaders with firsthand experience of oppression, we should expect compassionate solutions. Instead, we’ve seen policies that continue to harm our most vulnerable neighbors.

The public health community has stood firmly against their positions for quite some time. And we’ve been right to do so.

Now, as the cost of housing in Sacramento continues to skyrocket, these business leaders want to increase enforcement against our unhoused community, sweeping them away to undetermined places with absolutely no assurances of meaningful help. This is a public health nightmare in the making, and these business leaders know it. Perhaps they just don’t care.

The only good part of Measure O is the requirement that the city and county finally begin working together to combat homelessness. (It should also surprise no one that the business leaders did not support including this part.) This is long overdue, but we don’t need a ballot measure for this.

Let’s be clear: Measure O is simply a tool for the city to sweep unsheltered residents out of its affluent, largely white neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the county has just passed an ordinance to clear the camps on the American River Parkway. Our unsheltered neighbors are not going to just disappear once their camps are swept. So where can they stay?

No, Measure O is not the way to go.

Let’s reject this expensive, short-sighted tool of enforcement and finally work together to address homelessness.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Flojaune Cofer is an epidemiologist and the Senior Director of Policy for Public Health Advocates. She is also a member of the Neighbors Against Measure O coalition.