Eyewitness News Investigates: Following Sacramento’s lead on homeless laws

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The City of Fresno is in the process of moving forward with a no camping ordinance as a tool to deal complaints related to homelessness. The ordinance was designed to be similar to a no camping ordinance in Sacramento that’s been tested in court and has remained in place for more than two decades now. CBS47 Investigative Reporter Patrick Nelson made the trip up Highway 99 to Sacramento to see what kind of impact the ordinance has had in our state capitol.

No camping ordinances have been around for decades. Cities across the country have faced legal challenges and in some cases it’s been costly. City leaders in Fresno are following Sacramento’s lead and when we visited we learned the camping law is still a major point of controversy. 

“All we want is peace. So let us get some sleep,” people chanted at a protest outside Sacramento’s city hall. 

When we arrived we learned these people were protesting the very camping law we came to investigate.

“Being homeless in not a crime. So quit harassing us all the time,” people chanted. 

It appears the fight over a no camping ordinance enacted back in 1995 is still going on and civil rights attorney Mark Merin says it continues to face legal challenges.

“We’re fighting it in court right now it’s going to be declared unconstitutional. The federal courts say it’s absolutely unconstitutional to criminalize people for being homeless when there is no place for them to go,” said Merin.

But the author of Fresno’s no camping ordinance, city councilman Steve Brandau says his ordinance based on Sacramento’s stands up against legal opposition, addressing concerns about public safety, disturbances and sanitation in the city’s visible homeless population. A violation is a misdemeanor that could result in jail time.

“The City of Sacramento was sued over that ordinance and it prevailed, so the judge and jury said hey Sacramento you can continue with this ordinance. That gave us confidence that we could go forward and should go forward,” said Brandau. 

Immersed in the no camping ordinance controversy in Sacramento, Merin says Fresno’s decision to follow Sacramento’s lead will be a costly mistake.

“Well I’ve read the ordinance and it’s a piece of trash,” said Merin. “It’s another way of increasing the taxpayers costs tremendously because you are going to have to pay for arrests, pay to put people in jail and they’re just going to go right back on the street anyway.”

I spent days trying to line up on camera interviews with city leaders here in Sacramento, but all of them say they were too busy to address the issue of a no camping ordinance instead I was sent to talk to law enforcement and officers say despite changes at city hall, homelessness is still something they encounter on a daily basis.

“They make contact with these folks over, and over, and over again, it’s not like just move along. It’s literally what services can we get you to be successful and get where you want to be,” said  Sacramento Police Department Public Information Officer Eddie Macaulay.

Macaulay says having an ordinance in place helped establish guidelines for a team of trained officers talk with the homeless community– helping to connect people to services they need.

“The last thing we do is take any kind of enforcement action. So the ordinance there is not something we utilize very often it’s getting people services that make them successful,”said Macaulay. 

City of Sacramento statistics show the number of tickets issued for violation of the city’s camping law varies from year to year. From 2008 to 2015 more than 4,000 tickets were issued.

The man responsible for enforcing Fresno’s no camping ordinance Police Chief Jerry Dyer says officers will be carefully trained and ready to do their part.

“The last resort is to take them to jail, however should they be defiant, should they refuse services, should they refuse to leave then the ordinance is clear it allows us to take them to jail,” said Chief Dyer. 

During the visit to Sacramento we spoke with Cathleen Williams of the Sacramento homeless organizing committee. She says homeless numbers are rising and it’s not a sign of progress.

“What we’re seeing is people are being stripped of their belongings over and over and they are shuffling from place to place,” said Williams. 

Williams has advice for Fresno’s city leaders.

“Lobby for housing, lobby for low cost housing,” said Williams. “Create a place where people can be safe. If it is homeless governed and it has good support from the community it will succeed.”

Back in Fresno councilman Steve Brandau says residents should be encouraged because his no camping ordinance will be evaluated on a regular basis. 

“We’re going to go back to this ordinance every six months and review it and talk with the chief and he’s going to tell us how many people were arrested, how many people got help, how many people moved along and see if that population of 600 campers is shrinking. That’s the goal,” said Brandau.   

Protests continue to take place regularly in front of Sacramento City Hall as city leaders there consider a crackdown on panhandling. Here in Fresno, I’m told more ordinance proposals are on the way. Councilman Brandau also has his attention aimed at panhandling as well.

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