California cities take new steps to stamp out homeless camps

After years of failed policy, California cities are trying new — sometimes controversial — strategies to rein in homeless encampments that have spiraled out of control during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The mayor of Sacramento has proposed giving residents the right to housing and shelter, while requiring homeless people to accept housing that is offered to them.

In Los Angeles, where attempts to clear an encampment from a major park recently led to a police confrontation, the city council is moving forward with a new plan to make certain areas no-camping. Bay Area cities including San Jose, Santa Cruz, Novato and San Rafael, instead of continuing to randomly clear camps on a case-by-case basis, also recently passed rules to dictate where campsites can and cannot can’t be.

“It’s a unique moment,” said San Rafael Mayor Kate Colin, whose city this month opened Marin County’s first sanctioned homeless encampment. “The pandemic has changed the landscape for so many things. It’s time to try something new.

SAN RAFAEL CA – JULY 6: Gabriel Alvarez, left, gets help setting up his new tent from San Rafael Police Officer Sergeant Carl Huber after being transferred from a homeless camp at a nearby service support area in San Rafael, Calif. on Tuesday, July 6, 2021. The homeless encampment between Third and Fourth Streets near downtown Irwin Street was cleared when the city launched its designated service support area. (Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal)

But some of these new approaches have created pushback from activists who say they are leaving people with nowhere to go, and with few shelter beds or housing options available, large encampments help residents build community, feel safe, and access donations — and should be allowed to stay.

Homelessness has been a major problem in California for years. But during the COVID-19 crisis, when federal health guidelines discouraged clearing encampments and dispersing residents who should be sheltering in place, camps grew unchecked into tent cities and slums at a scale that many cities had never seen.

Now that the economy has reopened and Californians are returning to work and play, officials are under increasing pressure to remove the camps that have taken over public spaces, while finding humane places to live.

At least 113,660 Californians are estimated to be sleeping in camps or other outdoor locations. That’s more than half of the country’s total homeless population. And although many homeless counts this year have been suspended due to COVID precautions, experts say the pandemic has likely pushed more people onto the streets. Cities are using state and federal pandemic funds to open new emergency housing, but demand continues to outstrip supply.

SAN JOSE, – June 28: A plane flies over the homeless encampment located along Coleman Avenue in San Jose, California, as San Jose City cleanup crews remove objects and trash from the exterior of some tents and RVs in the camp on Monday, June 28, 2021. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who has been a state leader in homelessness efforts, proposed last month to force his city to provide housing or shelter beds to homeless residents. The concept, known as the right to housing or the right to shelter, has been pushed into various state and local iterations — most recently as Assembly Bill 22, which died last year.

“Right now, housing is an option that government and society can provide, and it’s an option that people can take if it’s available,” Steinberg said. “And I believe housing is a necessity. Housing must be a legal right. And for the few who won’t avail themselves if offered due to their own trauma or mental illness, going inside should be mandatory.

Steinberg hopes to provide housing — either long-term housing or some sort of emergency shelter — that allows residents to bring their pets, partners and belongings. Ideally, each person will be offered several choices. If they reject all the offers, they’ll face civil penalties — but Steinberg doesn’t yet know what those will be.

Steinberg wants an ordinance to be drafted and voted on by the city council in the coming months. The idea could start from there. Los Angeles officials are already considering a similar proposal.

In San Jose, staff members are working on a policy that would ban camping in certain areas. They start by clearing camps that block streets and sidewalks within 150 feet of a school.

“We’re not just going to calm down in response to complaints, because we did and it’s like a mole,” Councilman Matt Mahan said. “All we’re doing is moving people around at the expense of taxpayers and great hardship for our homeless community, and it doesn’t really improve anyone’s quality of life.”

So far, the city has removed 121 tents, RVs and other structures under its new strategy. But without enough shelter beds for displaced residents, some encampments have returned and repeatedly had to be removed, which “continues to stress all parties involved,” according to a recent city memo.

For months in downtown San Rafael, a large teepee backed by two-by-fours and draped in colorful blankets and tapestries served as a gathering place for homeless residents. The makeshift structure under the 101 Freeway overpass was a place to pray, regroup, seek advice from friends or even play hangman and do craft projects, said its creator, homeless artist Christal Gift 47 years old. She was among dozens of people living under the overpass in an encampment that swelled during the pandemic. On Tuesday, Caltrans workers tore down the teepee and the rest of the camp, as a small, grim crowd looked on.

A teepee used by residents of a homeless encampment under the 101 freeway overpass in downtown San Rafael was torn down as Caltrans workers cleared the camp this month. (Marisa Kendall/Bay Area News Group)

“They left us alone. It felt like everything was fine until COVID ended,” Gift said. “We are no longer human.”

Calls for police and firefighters have doubled in this area during the pandemic, according to Caltrans. As the agency cleared the camp, displaced residents were offered space in a new sanctioned camp a block away – a collection of approximately 35 assorted blue tents where residents have access to portable toilets, electricity to charge cell phones, security and case managers to help them find permanent accommodation. But residents had to leave behind treasures like their teepee and abide by a no-guest policy.

Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center, worries about the potential ramifications as cities crack down on encampments. Anti-camping laws just push the problem from corner to corner without solving anything, he said. Oakland adopted an encampment management policy last year, but implementation has been slow due to a lack of enforcement resources and a shortage of shelter beds.

And while Tars supports housing rights, he fears Steinberg’s plan will force people to accept housing that doesn’t meet their needs.

“There’s a lot of hope that we can end up coming out better,” he said. “But there is a lot of fear that we could end up much worse.”

Bernard P. Love