Paula Lomazzi is editor of HOMEWARD, Sacramento, California’s local street newspaper, and works with the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee (SHOC), a CHCROP reporting agency. She reports that two homeless campers have been found murdered along the Sacramento River’s banks already this year.
Sacramento currently has only 350 shelter beds for men and 153 beds for women, families and youth year-round, adding an additional 228 “overflow” beds during the winter months. The estimated “official” homeless population for the state capitol totals about 1600, but Lomazzi dismisses this as a “low-ball” figure.
Lomazzi lives in her bus. She used to park it in a light industrial area in Sacramento that was to become what is now the Richard Blvd. Redevelopment District — a location identified as a possible site to develop a proposed stadium project. “City policies have been really hard on homeless people, displacing them from downtown areas to appease business interests and developers,” says Lomazzi, who was “vehicularly housed.” Lomazzi says increased police enforcement of so-called “quality of life” laws disrupted the relative safety found in the loose-knit community of campers and folks living in their vehicles in that neighborhood, and ultimately displaced an estimated 100 homeless people, leaving them at increased risk for hate attacks.
Joan Burke, Advocacy Director of Sacramento’s local homeless service provider Loaves and Fishes, paints a darker picture. “Sacramento doesn’t have enough housing, or even the will to fund it, so homeless hate crimes here are crimes of vulnerability.”
Burke cites factors such as shelter beds reserved for specific homeless sub-populations (AKA “casemanaged beds”), as well as the entire Sacramento shelter system’s lack of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as major factors in what she describes as “a game of musical beds.” According to Burke, most of the homeless people competing for scarce beds in Sacramento’s shelter system have mental illnesses and other disabilities, and many of them are aged. “The least-functional homeless people are always losing this game,” she explains, “So they are at increased risk of victimization.”
Burke also reports that Sacramento’s District Attorney wasn’t prosecuting homeless people’s camping citations aggressively enough to suit local business interests. Exploiting the issue to further his political ambitions (and denigrating homeless people in the process), Sacramento’s City Attorney Sam Jackson then hopped on the pro-development bandwagon, taking on the persecution of Sacramento’s homeless campers as a campaign to increase his public name recognition.
After a homeless camper there successfully employed the necessity defense to defeat a camping citation last year, City Attorney Jackson took on the prosecution himself, enlisting the assistance of at least five deputy city attorneys to the task of convicting the now-hapless camper.
“Based on the correspondence in discovery I received in that trial, it was clear that there were also several additional staff such as paralegals and investigators assisting on that case,” according to defense attorney Kelly Tanalepy. “At the time we made jokes, calling them the city attorney’s ‘Dream Team’.” Part of the process of displacing and criminalizing Sacramento’s homeless was the familiar campaign of portraying homeless people in the commercial media and public forums as dangerous, dirty, diseased, “service resistant” transients, creating negative public perceptions, fear, and ultimately hate for homeless people.
“There’s a big attitude in this community is that these homeless people are out there because they’re doing something wrong to begin with, while police are universally portrayed as nice guys doing a difficult job. The public then thinks, ‘Oh they’re doing a good job, and so what if a few homeless people get roughed up in the process?’” Tanalepy explained. Joan Burke summed it up like this: “Public perception is ultimately dependent on the spin that our elected officials put on these issues.”