For eight years, John Kraintz lived in hidden spaces around Sacramento, recycling cans and bottles to earn his living, and dodging officers who continually ordered him to leave his chosen camping spots.
“I moved around a lot, trying to stay out of the way of police,” he testified Thursday during a Sacramento Superior Court trial challenging a city camping ordinance that plaintiffs contend is enforced only against homeless people. After becoming seriously ill, Kraintz finally found a place to live. But he has not stopped fighting for a “safe ground” for people who are without shelter, he said.
“The law isn’t working. I watched people die outside,” he said, dissolving into tears on the witness stand. “It’s got to stop.”
Kraintz is one of more than 50 witnesses expected to testify in the civil trial, which will test whether the city selectively applies its camping ordinance against homeless men and women who sleep in parks, outside businesses and in other places around town and not against others.
Civil rights attorney Mark Merin argues that only homeless people get citations for violating the ordinance, while police look the other way when people sleep outdoors for other reasons. The city’s behavior toward homeless people, Merin charges, violates the constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.
Chance Trimm, senior deputy city attorney, said officers typically are responding to complaints from the public when they cite people for illegal camping, enforcing an ordinance that has been in effect for 22 years. Trimm said the eight people who are plaintiffs in the court case “all violated the law” when they were arrested in 2009 for camping on private property near downtown Sacramento.
Jurors in the case, who during questioning earlier this week described a wide range of experiences with homeless people in their daily lives, are now hearing what life is like living on Sacramento’s streets. Many of the witnesses are, or have been, homeless. A rotating group of more than two dozen homeless or formerly homeless people attend the proceedings each day.
A recent census counted more than 3,000 people living without shelter in Sacramento County, but advocates believe the actual number is much higher. The city’s growing homeless crisis has become one of the most prominent and divisive issues facing Mayor Darrell Steinberg, the City Council and county supervisors, who are working to find property and funding for shelters and services.
“Hundreds of people are waiting to get into shelters every night,” Sister Libby Fernandez, the longtime director of Loaves & Fishes homeless services complex near downtown Sacramento, testified Thursday. Fernandez now runs a new program, Mercy Pedalers, in which she travels by bicycle each morning to visit with people on the streets, bringing them water and coffee and attempting to connect them to services.
The current court case began more than eight years ago, after about two dozen people camped out in a vacant lot owned by Merin at C and 12th streets. The action followed years of efforts to establish a safe and legal place where homeless people could live without fears of being cited or arrested.
In September 2009, police cited the campers on Merin’s property, removed their gear and ultimately arrested them, informing them that they were in violation of an ordinance that prohibits camping for extended periods on public or private property without a special permit. The men and women who called themselves “Safe Ground Pioneers,” a group that includes Kraintz, subsequently filed a lawsuit challenging the ordinance and the manner in which it is enforced.
Homeless plaintiffs are not seeking monetary damages in the case. Instead, they are requesting a declaration and injunction from the court that would lead to the establishment of “safe grounds” where people could legally live outdoors.
In his opening statement Wednesday, Merin told the jury that homeless campers made their stand in 2009 because the city had no available shelter beds, and they were weary of being rousted by police, who routinely “trashed” their possessions and cited them for being in violation of the camping ordinance. “They became branded as criminals” after receiving the misdemeanor citations, he said.
He said witnesses will provide testimony proving that the ordinance is selectively enforced against homeless people. Police have looked the other way, he said, when Boy Scouts pitch their tents at Camp Pollock without special permits, or when shoppers sleep in front of electronics stores in hopes of scoring hot new devices.
“You can’t discriminate against a disfavored group in society,” Merin said. “The ordinance must be applied equally.”
Trimm, in his opening statement, said the “safe ground” campers disrupted life for people and businesses near the C Street property in 2009, forcing the city to act. The campers were in the area, off and on, for about six weeks.
An elderly couple whose property was adjacent to the campground complained, he said, about barking dogs, profane language and yelling emanating from the area. According to the couple, campers urinated and defecated on and around the couple’s property.
“Day by day, week by week, it got worse and worse,” Trimm said, forcing police to remove the protesters.
Trimm said the homeless plaintiffs knew that their behavior was illegal, and plotted to receive citations and get arrested so that “they could have the opportunity for all of us to be here today.”
“Was this really a case of people having nowhere else to go?” Trimm asked. “Or was it a sort of a setup from the very beginning?”