The ‘Incredibly Dangerous’ Solution Sacramento Has For Homelessness

Sacramento's business improvement district wants to use a civil injunction to ban seven homeless men from the community.

SACRAMENTO ― Along Sacramento’s Broadway Corridor, the iconic Art Deco Tower Theater glows bright as people dine at Queen Sheba, which offers some of the best Ethiopian food in the area. Andy Nguyen’s vegan Chinese food and Kathmandu Kitchen are other neighborhood favorites, along with L’Amour Shoppe, where Sacramentans have long turned for all of their sex toy and pornography needs.

Like most cities, Sacramento gets complaints from local businesses and residents that people experiencing homelessness are a nuisance ― using drugs on the sidewalks, camping in tents under freeways and asking pedestrians for money or food.

So several members of the local business improvement district ― with the support of Democrat Mayor Darrell Steinberg ― are trying something unprecedented: They have filed a civil injunction against seven supposedly disruptive homeless men, which would bar them from entering the Broadway Corridor altogether. Essentially, the city of Sacramento is filing a restraining order against its own homeless residents.

“It’s an incredibly dangerous precedent,” said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness.

“They are trying to get rid of homeless people.”

The civil suit alleges that the seven men have repeatedly harassed, threatened, or otherwise disrupted business owners and patrons. One of the men is currently in jail for a misdemeanor charge of battery against an elder.

The Tower Theater, built in 1939, is a longstanding Broadway Corridor institution.
The Tower Theater, built in 1939, is a longstanding Broadway Corridor institution.
jmoor17 via Getty Images

Local business officials contend a black market drug trade is disrupting the area. “Our team is constantly dealing with the aftermath of drug activity at the Designated Area,” said Joan Borucki, executive director of the Greater Broadway District. “This includes dealing with the human waste, needle pick-up, theft, car break-ins and vandalism on a daily basis.”

While there is a small handful of more serious crime allegations against the targeted seven men, the lawsuit mainly cites instances of public drug use and “trespassing” ― that is, attempting to use restrooms, bathe and sleep at local businesses or in public. The men have also been repeatedly told to leave informal and illegal campsites that dot the city, mostly underneath freeway overpasses, despite having no where else to go. The stacks of allegations against them appear to just be repeated citations for trying to exist while homeless and battle addiction.

“It’s as much a catalog of their torture as anything,” said Niki Jones, a board member of the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee.

Sacramento appears to be the first city to propose applying civil injunctions to its homeless population, but the legal instrument itself has a long history in California. Starting in the early 1980s, local district attorneys began using injunctions to bar suspected gang members from gathering in groups, drinking alcohol, visiting high-crime areas or staying out past 10 p.m.

Civil injunctions were originally intended as a progressive alternative to prison, but over time they’ve morphed into something very different. In 2017, more than 10,000 people —overwhelmingly young men of color — were subject to injunctions in Los Angeles alone. Peter Arellano, an LA resident who eventually sued the city over his lifelong injunction, was barred from wearing Dodgers clothing or meeting with his own father due to a single arrest as a teenager.

Defense lawyers and civil rights advocates have had some success beating back the widespread use of civil injunctions. In 2018, Los Angeles stopped adding names to its gang injunction database after a federal judge found that the legal instrument violated suspects’ right to due process. Other cities have also begun to shrink their injunction lists after threats of legal action and community complaints.

Tent cities in Sacramento have become increasingly common.
Tent cities in Sacramento have become increasingly common.

But Sacramento’s move opens up a new avenue for municipalities to use civil injunctions ― and due to their low standard of proof and relatively easy application by prosecutors, the seven cases in Sacramento may just be the beginning.

There are currently 5,570 people experiencing homelessness in Sacramento ― a 19 percent increase from 2017 ― per a June report from the Sacramento Bee. Of those 5,570 people, 93 percent are from Sacramento and have lived here a majority of their lives, and 70 percent are unsheltered.

Not all businesses in the area are in favor of addressing the homeless problem with injunctions.

“The city needs a more hands-on approach by helping to identify the people here and sorting out the major problem, which is drug-related,” said Steve Sylvester, owner of an antique shop that’s been in the neighborhood for 19 years.

And advocates are ready to fight. “It’s really an unbelievable targeting of already constantly harassed residents, by powerful business interests influencing and abusing state power to their benefit with the ongoing goal of removing those they deem undesirable from public space,” said Jones.

Aside from being punitive and harsh to the homeless population, there’s a good chance the injunctions simply will not work. Dozens of cities across the United States already bar homeless people from panhandling, loitering and sleeping in their cars. The effectiveness of these laws in reducing crime or alleviating homelessness has never been demonstrated, and enforcing them may cost more than providing housing or expanding services.

Other studies have found that most assaults and homicides carried out against homeless people are committed in poorly lit, out-of-the-way areas — exactly the places injunctions will likely push them to.

Given that the majority of complaints against the men are directly related to drug use and trespassing, the solution to the problem, advocates say, lies in harm reduction, affordable housing, and greater resources for these specific men and the homeless community at large.

Beyond her role with the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee, Jones also works at a local harm reduction center as a syringe exchange service and referral specialist and HIV test counselor. The organization provides testing for HIV and STIs, naloxone distribution and education on overdose prevention and syringe exchange. These kinds of services, coupled with affordable housing, would prevent many of the issues that business owners and city officials are complaining about.

Syringe exchange programs have consistently been credited with decreasing rates of HIV and HCV, per the Centers for Disease Control, and naloxone successfully intervened in 25,000 opioid overdoses between 2006 and 2014. It has also been shown to decrease heroin use among those who have participated in a naloxone distribution and overdose prevention programs.

Despite these successes, the city “just kind of just pretends like we don’t exist,” Jones said. “They don’t try to consult with us.”

Kenny Beasley, who’s lived in the area being targeted by injunctions for two decades and works at the harm reduction center with Jones, called the ban a “draconian solution,” and pointed out that supposed economic depreciation of businesses on the Broadway Corridor might be an exaggeration.

“The brunch line outside Tower Cafe is still going around the corner every weekend,” he said with a laugh. And houses in the affluent neighborhood of Land Park, just on the other side of Broadway, are still selling at upwards of $500k.

“If [the ban] is your only solution,” he said, “then we’re in for a world of hurt.”

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