Advocates Eye Legal Options as Homeless Are Ticketed Along River in Sacramento

2 min
The dense foliage surrounding the American River Parkway can make it easy to camp discreetly. That's until the river rises, forcing residents onto more visible levees.  (Michelle Wiley/KQED)

Thomas Nimmo has been living along the American River Parkway in Sacramento for several years. Earlier this month, he said he had a run-in with a Sacramento County park ranger.

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"I had just gotten to the park and was sitting down smoking a cigarette and then I saw the park ranger come by," Nimmo said. "They gave me a ticket for having the buggy in the park. They said, 'Well, we can't get you on anything else, but we'll get you on this.' "

Nimmo said he accepted the ticket and went down to Loaves & Fishes, which provides services to the homeless, to use their legal aid services to get it taken care of. He wound up with six hours of community service.

"I was really upset," Nimmo said.

Local officials say homeless camping along the American River Parkway, a 23-mile stretch along the American River, has always been an issue. The dense trees and brush make it easy to be discreet. But around this time of the year, when the river rises, it forces residents to move away from the water and to more visible spaces, such as levees.

Prior to this year, rangers would often ticket homeless residents during these seasons for camping on the parkway. But then the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the Martin v. City of Boise decision in 2018, which argued that citing homeless people for camping — when there's nowhere else for them to go — falls under cruel and unusual punishment and therefore is unconstitutional.

"Basically what it did was say, effectively, you cannot as a park ranger or a city cop give a ticket for camping," said Tamara Edge, legal director at Loaves & Fishes. "If anything, the harassment has increased, not decreased."

Edge said that, along with the rash of ticketing for specific offenses, they're seeing three or four under one citation.

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"So, on average, they'd get like six hours for one citation. But now they're getting close to 12 or 24 hours because they're cited for three different things," Edge said.

Park officials said they do not take housing status into account when writing citations, and that anyone on the parkway performing these actions would be ticketed.

County officials also argue they have a responsibility to the ecological health of the parkway as much as to the homeless residents who live there.

"I have to be an advocate for both constituencies," said Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna, whose district is bisected by the parkway.

"I have an equal responsibility to express compassion and whatever authority I can exercise to influence the application of resources to help house people, to help shelter people, to help them reach stability if they are suffering substance abuse and mental health challenges," Serna said. "I also have that same responsibility to my constituents that live in neighborhoods adjacent to the parkway, who are feeling the impacts of having people live atop the crowns of the levee."

Part of the issue, according to some advocates, is a lack of shelter space for homeless people — a problem that Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg has made one of his central issues.

"That stereotype, 'Oh, people don't want help,' isn't true, if you engage them in a consistent and assertive way and build that trust. We're doing that," Steinberg said. "We need a low-barrier shelter. We haven't had that in Sacramento. We are now committed to creating 800 units."

But until those beds open, advocates argue that ticketing homeless people along the parkway for issues like having a shopping cart could fall under the same Boise decision and be considered cruel and unusual punishment.

"We've really seen a dramatic increase, not only in other citations written for homeless people, but also in terms of arrests — misdemeanor arrests, felony arrests, etc. Those jumped pretty dramatically as well," said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness.

Erlenbusch said they're consulting with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington, D.C., which was part of the Boise decision, to see if the county's actions violate the law. If so, it might be facing legal action.

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