(SACRAMENTO) – Sacramento County District Attorney Thien Ho has filed an unprecedented lawsuit against the City of Sacramento for inconsistently enforcing city ordinances related to homeless encampments, alongside a similar lawsuit filed by a civil rights attorney on behalf of business owners and homeowners who have lost patience with the city.
“There are more homeless people in Sacramento than San Francisco,” Ho said at a press conference. “Our community is at a breaking point. We have an unhoused population living in conditions typical of Third World countries. And we have the rest of the community stuck between compassion and chaos.”
The district attorney described numerous instances in which his employees were assaulted and threatened and said he asked the city to help get the homeless off the streets and into shelters.
Bushes around the courthouse were burned down early Tuesday morning, Ho said. The district attorney said the suspect who set the fire was in custody and was an unhoused individual.
Attorney Ognian Gavrilov filed the accompanying lawsuit on behalf of a dozen individuals ranging from homeowners to business owners. “We want to make sure that regular people have a seat at the table when we find a solution,” Gravilov said.
The DA’s lawsuit is the culmination of a dispute between the DA, the city and the Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman, who sent the City of Sacramento a letter describing safety concerns related to unhoused people camped on courthouse property in June.
“When coming to court is a trial itself for victims, witnesses or even jurors – access to justice is threatened,” Bowman wrote.
Ho on June 30 sent the city a letter regarding the downtown public safety crisis’ effect on access to justice.
“People are entitled to the fundamental right of fair and equal access to justice. But to obtain justice, members of our community require unfettered access to the courthouse and the district attorney’s office without threats to their safety or well-being,” Ho wrote. “Unfortunately, this is not the experience for those having to navigate the city blocks surrounding the courthouse.”
Asked Tuesday where unhoused people camping around the city can relocate, Ho said, “That’s the city’s job to figure that out. They’ve had years to figure it out so I’m not going to dictate where they go. That’s not my job. My job is to ensure public safety.”
Mayor Darrell Steinberg responded to the homeless crisis at the courthouse in July, agreeing with the presiding judge and the district attorney, and said he was working with the city manager to open up the Miller Park safe camping site in no more than two weeks. That was almost three months ago, Ho said.
“Since then, things have only worsened,” he said. “A court reporter was assaulted, another DA employee was threatened, and a woman was sexually harassed and forced to hide in the bathroom of the G Street Café.”
In an interview, Ho said the city could have taken several actions to avoid the lawsuit. One would be to have allowed camping on city property at night but not in the daytime. The city allows camping at City Hall at night but not in the daytime. The DA would have liked to see that option applied to the Superior courthouse.
Ho said the city should have created more professionally run safe-ground campsites: “They need to be run professionally with a good neighbor policy.”
He pointed to examples of homelessness solutions used in San Diego, San Antonio and Portland, Oregon. Haven for Hope is a 22-acre, 1,600-person shelter in San Antonio that serves 85% of the city’s unhoused population. It guarantees that nearly anybody who wants to sleep indoors can, while accessing a variety of on-site social services, Ho said.
In New York City, those without housing typically live indoors because of right-to-shelter laws.
California has a homeless population of more than 170,000 people, roughly 10,000 of whom are in Sacramento County.
The back and forth between the city and the DA was at its breaking point in the last couple weeks when the city attorney, Susana Alcala Wood, wrote Ho a letter Sept. 6.
“I emphasized the great need by our two offices to collaborate and work together to resolve the significant homeless crisis that affects not only the City of Sacramento, but also the county and region that you serve,” Alcala Wood wrote. “In your most recent response, you set forth a number of mischaracterizations of the city’s response to the homeless crisis through a comprehensive and holistic approach. I encourage you to re-read my September letter to better understand the city’s broad efforts and our request to work collaboratively, rather than confrontationally.”
Steinberg responded to the lawsuit in a statement asserting that no local government in the Sacramento region has done more to address the crisis on our streets than the City of Sacramento.
The mayor touted the city’s 1,200 new emergency beds, ordinances to protect sidewalks, schools and other sensitive sites; a legally binding partnership with the county; and thousands of new affordable housing units.
“The frustration that members of our community feel is absolutely justified,” Steinberg said in the statement. “But the DA’s lawsuit will not clear a single sidewalk nor get a single person off the streets.”
Steinberg said the city is working day and night to enforce laws and provide relief to our community while avoiding simply moving people endlessly from one block to the next.
“Frankly, we have no time for the district attorney’s performative distraction from the hard work we all need to do together to solve this complex social problem plaguing urban centers throughout the state and nation.
“The city needs real partnership from the region’s leaders, not politics and lawsuits,” Steinberg said. “Let’s just do the work.”
Alcala Wood, the city attorney, said the city has attempted to work with Ho multiple times in recent months and that collaboration is the best path forward.
“However, it sadly appears the DA would rather point fingers and cast blame than partner to achieve meaningful solutions for our community,” Alcala Wood said. “The city looks forward to responding to the DA’s claims in court.”