Sacramento DA: waterways damaged by homeless encampments
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — An abandoned homeless encampment stands near Steelhead Creek, littered with old tents, racks of shelving and a wheelchair.
Sacramento County District Attorney Thien Ho walked through the camp Tuesday, the same day he filed an amended complaint against the city of Sacramento over what he calls its lack of action on the homelessness issue.
“The city of Sacramento and its leadership have utterly failed,” Ho said. “They need to enforce the law.”
The initial complaint, filed in September in Sacramento County Superior Court, asked a judge to force the city to take action on the issue of homelessness, removing what’s termed a “nuisance” on its property. The Tuesday amended complaint added violations of the California Fish and Game Code.
The encampment is one of many, some occupied, nestled on the banks of Steelhead Creek. Others sit on a nearby levee. All of them are in an area that the River City Waterway Alliance said is a flood plain.
“When the water comes up, this area is completely under water,” said Crystal Tobias, with the alliance.
People who live in the encampments grab what they can when that happens and flee to higher ground. What they can’t take is swept into the creek, taken downstream and ultimately to the ocean.
That includes shopping carts and shelving, but also human feces, hypodermic needles and car batteries. That interferes with salmon in the creek and affects a source of drinking water for people.
The initial complaint had three causes of action: public nuisance, private nuisance and inverse condemnation. Ho said that after more investigation revealed how the encampments affect the city’s waterways, he amended the complaint. Its causes of action are now public nuisance, statutory public nuisance and a violation of the Fish and Game Code.
Roland Brady, an emeritus professor of biology, said the effects of encampments can last for decades in riparian habitats. Trash has an impact, as does the removal of lower hanging tree limbs, which allows more sunlight to hit the soil, making it harder for vegetation to grow. Soil compaction in the area leads to greater water runoff and a higher chance for non-native plants to thrive.
The River City Waterway Alliance removed some 54,000 pounds of trash from the area last fall. Since it began hauling away garbage, it’s taken a total of about 250 tons.
The encampments sit on city-owned property. Nearby, on county property, Ho noted that there were no camps in the flood plain.
“That county area is pristine, it’s clean and it’s there for the use and enjoyment of our community,” he added.
Tuesday’s amended complaint is the latest salvo in a legal battle between Sacramento and the District Attorney’s Office.
In August, Ho sent a letter to the city calling the homelessness situation “a public crisis.” He listed steps he wanted the city to take, saying legal action could follow.
Then in September, Ho filed the initial complaint against the city. Mayor Darrell Steinberg at the time called it a “performative distraction.”
On Tuesday, Steinberg in a statement called Ho’s tour of the homeless encampments a “media stunt.”
“In politics, they say there are two kinds of people: work horses and show horses,” the mayor said. “While the DA was traipsing around on a levee with the press in tow this morning, the city and county of Sacramento were jointly taking an important step toward actually getting people off the street.”
According to Steinberg, county supervisors on Tuesday approved a Safe Stay sleeping cabin community on Stockton Boulevard. Additionally, the city is working with Governor Gavin Newsom to add 175 sleeping cabins to a county Safe Stay community on Watt Avenue.
Ho on Tuesday praised City Council members Eric Guerra, Rick Jennings and Lisa Kaplan, who he said intended to discuss a daytime camping ban at their meeting today.
The district attorney said he spoke with Steinberg about such an ordinance before he filed suit. However, the mayor declined to advance the proposal.
“This isn’t about politics,” Ho said, adding he had no desire to seek a different elected office. “This is the only office and job that I want.”