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San Mateo County Supes Vote to Criminalize Camping in Unincorporated Areas

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A tent and several armchairs under a freeway overpass at night.
A tent under a freeway overpass in Oakland on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017. (Bert Johnson/KQED)

Updated 2:55 p.m. Tuesday

San Mateo County Supervisors voted today to make it a crime to camp in public in unincorporated areas when shelter beds are available.

After two-and-a-half hours of discussion and public comment, the proposal got unanimous support from the board over the strong opposition of some advocates and community members.

“I think what we’re doing today with this legislation is we’re saving lives,” said Supervisor David Canepa. “I am confident that when the board gets a report back from staff that, we will see a drop in those who die on the streets of San Mateo County.”

Resident Paul Bocanegra was among those who expressed his opposition. “We’ve been down this road where we’ve criminalized addiction; we’ve been down this road where we’ve criminalized mental health,” he said. “We can’t go down that same road.”

The supervisors made additions to the ordinance to include the requirement that the county conduct a mental health screening before issuing a first warning and clarifying that unhoused individuals won’t be charged for storage of their belongings.

The ordinance will get a second vote in the coming weeks — generally a formality — and take effect 30 days after final approval.

San Mateo County Supervisors took up a proposal Tuesday that would make it a crime to camp in public spaces in unincorporated parts of the county when shelter space is available.

Under the plan, officials could charge a person staying in an encampment with a misdemeanor if they’ve been given two written warnings and twice refused offers of shelter.

Board of Supervisors President Warren Slocum introduced the proposal with Supervisor Dave Pine, citing public health and safety hazards in camps and impacts on surrounding communities.

“This is a positive way to encourage homeless residents to get the mental health and drug counseling that they need,” he said. “Plus, get a roof over their heads.”

But, advocates warn the approach is cruel, ineffective and costly.

“It is an example of the failed punitive strategy that cities and counties have attempted to implement in response to the growing homelessness crisis across the country,” said Tristia Bauman, directing attorney of housing for the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley.

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Nothing about the proposal makes it more likely to find success in reducing homelessness, said Bauman, whose previous job as an attorney with the National Homelessness Law Center involved tracking the effects of camping bans around the county.

“These policies don’t address the underlying causes of homelessness. They punish people for displaying the symptoms of homelessness,” she said.

The proposal specifies that encampments can’t be cleared unless the county has shelter available for all residents. Once a camp is slated to be dismantled, officials say the county holds shelter beds for 72 hours for residents.

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As the county pursues its goal of ensuring that interim or permanent housing is available to every person experiencing homelessness, the ordinance takes aim at recalcitrant encampments made up of “a segment of the homeless population that just are treatment resistant and don’t want to be in shelters,” according to Slocum.

Advocates warn that’s a faulty premise and argue that simply providing enough beds to house camp residents fails to address the many reasons people experiencing homelessness might reject an offer of emergency shelter.

Some shun congregate shelters because of past trauma. Some find them unmanageable because of intellectual or physical disabilities or mental health issues, and others have pets or belongings they don’t want to leave behind.

And, crucially, shelter beds are often temporary offerings. Shelters frequently require residents to leave for hours a day and have rules that some unhoused people feel restrict their rights.

“So a person would essentially be put in the position of moving from a location where they can stably be 24 hours a day, despite its rudimentary nature, to a shelter where the setting is very temporary,” Bauman said. “Once that time comes to an end, what is that person’s alternative?”

Unless they have an offer of permanent housing, it’s likely the street — only without many of their belongings or the community they’d established.

“We know that that type of approach is destabilizing,” Bauman said. “It perpetuates homelessness, makes it harder to escape, and it’s expensive to implement.”

With limited shelter space available, she also said the proposed ordinance could end up forcing people who’ve determined shelters don’t work for them into beds that could otherwise be available to those who want to access them.

“It’s disappointing because I think San Mateo is doing a lot of things right,” said William Freeman, senior counsel at the ACLU of Northern California. “It’s inhumane to criminalize homelessness, and it increases trauma. If we’re trying to find solutions to the problem and to help people, this is the wrong approach.”

Freeman, who lives in San Mateo County, said the ACLU raised concerns with county officials about a draft of the ordinance last summer, but the current proposal reflects few meaningful changes. He worries about how the ordinance would be used in practice if it’s approved.

“It has a lot of vague terminology, and it opens up a lot of opportunities for abuse,” he said. “When you give law enforcement a tool, you open up the possibility of abuse if you don’t have really strong protections in place.”

In San Francisco, a federal magistrate granted a preliminary injunction limiting encampment sweeps, in part because of evidence that the city wasn’t following its own policies in clearing camps.

At last count, there were 1,808 people experiencing homelessness in the county, nearly a third of those on the streets or in tents. Slocum estimates the ordinance would impact about 44 people in eight encampments in the county’s unincorporated regions.

The move comes as cities around California are grappling with rising homelessness and widespread encampments and struggling to clean up their streets and move people indoors.

A 2022 court decision bars local governments from punishing unhoused people who sleep in public when no shelter is available. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court agreed to review that ruling.

Under San Mateo’s proposal, anyone charged with a misdemeanor violation under the ordinance would qualify for diversion programs offered by the San Mateo County Superior Court, which could help them avoid jail time.

“The County has worked hard to implement the goal of functional zero homelessness, whereby individuals experiencing homelessness have access to appropriate shelter opportunities,” Pine, who introduced the proposal alongside Slocum, said in a statement. “This proposal helps incentivize individuals to take advantage of these opportunities in a compassionate way while also regulating critical operational details.”

The Board of Supervisors will meet at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

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