The City of Sacramento this month reached a deal to lease vacant land at no cost to an auto repair business before clearing the property of a major homeless encampment.
It’s the second time this year that Sacramento has reached an agreement to lease property to a private entity that had complained about homeless camps before clearing a site of tents or vehicles. The company leasing the new property sued the city in January, alleging the city allowed the camp to become a public nuisance.
This time, the sweep at Lexington Street and Dixieanne Avenue took place on land that the city council had previously identified as one that would house a government-sanctioned site for homeless services.
In August, the council ordered staff to open space for 50 small houses for 100 homeless residents. It was part of the city’s so-called homeless settlement plan, a $100 million effort that aimed to create beds and shelter spaces for more than 2,000 homeless people. Some people who lived at the site this week said they moved there in anticipation of the project tiny houses.
The new agreement with the auto repair company, signed May 15, says Texas-based Caliber Collision LLC “is willing to maintain the property to prevent illegal dumping and trespassing.”
The month-to-month lease allows the business to use the land for parking and daytime storage for its neighboring store for up to five years, while a municipal agency markets the property for sale, the spokesperson said. of the city, Tim Swanson.
Wednesday morning, after posting a notice, dozens of police, code enforcement officers and tow trucks arrived at the dirt lot in Old North Sacramento. More than a dozen homeless men and women rushed to move their RVs, vehicles and tents. Not everyone was able to move their vehicles in time — the city towed 10 vehicles from the property and one from the street, Swanson said.
Mary Simmons, 64, was camping on the land in a trailer hoping to get a small home. After moving her trailer and truck off the lot, she sat down on the sidewalk holding her panting Chihuahua Snickers.
“There are supposed to be tiny houses there,” said Simmons, wearing a surgical mask, fearful of contracting the coronavirus. “Where are the tiny houses? They don’t do anything for the homeless, they just move us from place to place.
Like many, Simmons moved his trailer to a nearby street. She moves it every other day to prevent it from being towed. The city offered her a spot in a secure parking lot on Front Street, but it couldn’t accommodate both her trailer and her truck, so she declined, she said.
Fred Gurr, 58 and without an eye, also hoped to enter one of the town’s tiny houses. He was staying in a white cabin on the grounds that was barely big enough for him and his Chihuahua Chompers, but at least it kept the rain out and protected him from the scorching sun, he said. A tow truck towed it on Wednesday. He doesn’t know how to get it back.
“Heck yeah, I would’ve walked into one,” Gurr said of the town’s tiny homes, sitting on a sidewalk surrounded by bags of his stuff, patting Chompers on his lap. “I think that would have been great.”
Kenneth Borum, 53, also said he walked into a small house in town. He does not know where he will go and will miss the close-knit camp, which provided security, he said.
“On the pitch, we looked out for each other,” Borum said. “We didn’t have to worry about people stealing our stuff.”
Droplets of sweat ran down Borum’s face as he spoke, soaking his black T-shirt. Sacramento’s temperature reached 103 degrees Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service.
The camp has been causing problems for local businesses in the industrial area for nearly two years, said Billy Onir, an employee of RV Doctor Inc., a repair shop adjacent to the land. He was happy for the city to clean up the grounds, but wished the city had done it sooner, and also wished the city had moved everyone to a shelter or accommodation, he said.
“It needs to be cleaned up,” Onir said. “There was drug use, theft of generators and parts. We had to increase our security, our land was full of rats, there was defecation and needles.
Onir gave food and water to the homeless, and said he would have contributed money to a fund to pay for shelter or housing, if the city had established such a fund.
Councilman Sean Loloee, who represents the neighborhood, did not return calls seeking comment. The lease was not submitted for council approval because it was less than $25,000.
Sacramento businesses sue the homeless
The lease and sweep near Caliber Collision underscores the pressure business groups and taxpayers are putting on the city to deal with the worsening homelessness crisis.
The city has mostly scaled back evacuations of homeless camps after a 2018 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision known as Martin v. Boise generally barred local governments from clearing camps for homeless on public property unless they can offer someone a shelter bed.
Business groups are backing a November ballot initiative that would require the city to provide campsites or shelter for 60% of its estimated homeless population, an effort to get people off the streets and public spaces. Homeless activists fear his language could also allow the city to clear more camps from public property without offering shelter.
At the same time, some companies are suing the city, urging it to clean up more camps long before enough shelter beds open.
Caliber Collision’s lawsuit in the US District Court for Eastern California alleged that a homeless man broke into the business and stole equipment, and several homeless men threatened customers.
“The homeless people overtook city-owned properties adjacent to Caliber, which became a camp and center of nuisance activity, drug dealing and open drug use,” the lawsuit reads. “Homeless people dump raw sewage, human waste and chemicals, clogging gutters near Caliber.”
When the company first filed a lawsuit, citing public nuisance and state-created danger, it looked like the city was going to fight it.
“Caliber does not have a constitutionally protected right to operate a business in a place free of homeless people,” the city wrote in a January court filing.
Caliber Collision did not respond to a request for comment.
Will the leases withstand a legal challenge?
It’s unclear if Caliber will drop the lawsuit now because of the lease, or if the city will ever open a small family village or secure parking lot there. The property remains in the homeless site plan, but public works manager Ryan Moore did not list it as one of the “active sites” during a presentation to council last month.
The lease allows Caliber to install a new fence, security cameras and signage to prohibit trespassing.
Last month, the city leased highly visible municipal property on Fair Oaks Boulevard and Howe Avenue from neighboring landlords for $250 a month, then emptied the camp of more than 30 people. The property is now vacant and surrounded by a six foot iron fence.
So far, the city has not faced a legal challenge challenging the leases it offered to private groups before clearing the homeless camps. It’s unclear whether that would pass under the 2018 court ruling that limited camp clearances, Sacramento civil rights attorney Mark Merin said.
“I don’t think a public entity can escape liability by contracting out to a private entity,” Merin said. “Until someone challenges it in court, however, they will be free to pursue their own strategy.”
This story was originally published May 26, 2022 10:43 a.m.