Valley legislators look to fold up tent cities

Sen. Shannon Grove, Assemblyman Joe Patterson co-author new bipartisan bill to grant law enforcement authority to clear homeless encampments from streets, sidewalks

Homeless encampment in Tulare in March 2022 - Photo by Rigo Moran
Homeless encampment in Tulare in March 2022 - Photo by Rigo Moran
Darren Fraser
Published February 9, 2024  • 
12:00 pm

SACRAMENTO – As the homelessness crisis continues to loom over the state’s urban landscapes, a couple of Valley legislators have joined other lawmakers in stepping forward with a bipartisan bill, which aims to dismantle tent cities that dot the streets and sidewalks.

The bill, Senate Bill (SB) 1011, was introduced on Feb. 5 and lists Sen. Shannon Grove (R-Baskersfield) as one of its co-authors along with Assemblymember Joe Patterson (R-Fresno). It was unveiled by Republican Senate Leader Brian Jones (40th District) and Sen. Catherine Blakespear (D-38th District). 

SB 1011 is unambiguous regarding homeless encampments near public and private schools, open spaces and major transit stops. Any encampment within 500 feet of these areas will be cleared. Authorities must give 72 hours notice before undertaking any enforcement action. SB 1011 requires that law enforcement provide information about sleeping alternatives, homeless and mental health services, and information about shelters in the area.

The bill’s second component is not so transparent. SB 1022 would prohibit homeless individuals and/or encampments on sidewalks and streets if a homeless shelter – emergency shelter, navigation center – is available to house the individual. If there is no shelter available, the authorities cannot remove the encampment.

But the bill does not specify what “available” means. It does not state if available means a shelter within a certain radius or distance, nor does it include any language that deals with shelters that are at capacity.

Of course, existing laws remain in effect. Individuals camped out on sidewalks or streets can be charged with a misdemeanor for creating a public nuisance. Violation of SB 1011 is also a misdemeanor or an infraction.

In an email to the Times, Andrew LaMar, Blakespear’s communications director, wrote: “The language of SB 1011 does not currently provide clarity on the definition of ‘available shelter.’ We anticipate that these details will be worked out through the committee process in a way to promote compassionate treatment of people who are unhoused and to align with current legal precedent set by the 2018 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in the case Martin v. Boise.”

In Martin v. Boise, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2018 that it’s cruel and unusual punishment to criminalize camping on public property when the people in question have nowhere else they can legally sleep.

Nina Krishel from Jones’ office said that, as written, the bill would leave the decision of what constitutes an available shelter to local jurisdictions. But she expects the language to become more refined as the bill heads through the committee process. 

A COMPASSIONATE MEASURE

A press release on Jones’ website states that SB 1011 is a measure to compassionately clear homeless encampments.

“Californians should not have to tolerate the encampments that now fill our open spaces with trash, needles, and human waste,” said Jones. “We know that clearing encampments is possible when there is the political will to do so—just look at San Francisco during the APEC conference. It’s dangerous, inhumane, and unhealthy for homeless individuals to live on sidewalks, near our schools and transit stops and in our open spaces.”

The statement goes on to say the circumstance is also not safe or fair to nearby neighbors and local businesses. 

“Our bipartisan SB 1011 will help compassionately clear encampments, clean up California, and protect public safety and health,” Jones said.

Jones added, “Our SB 1011 strikes the appropriate balance between accountability and compassion in helping tackle the homelessness crisis while putting public health and public safety as the top priority. Simply buying more tents and saying ‘problem solved’ is not acceptable.”

In the press release, Blakespear said, “Public spaces are not living spaces. People deserve to live inside, and the public deserve to use their parks, sidewalks and streets as they were designed. This bill is a step toward creating that reality.”

UNSAFE CAMPING ORDINANCE

SB 1011 is modeled after a municipal ordinance San Diego enacted on July 31, 2023. The city’s Unsafe Camping Ordinance made it illegal for anyone to camp on public property within two blocks of a K-12 school or within two blocks of a shelter. It prohibited public camping along trolley tracks, in transportation hubs, in city parks if the activity created a substantial public health or safety risk, and in any open space, waterway or on the banks of a waterway.

Like SB 1011, the ordinance gives law enforcement the authority to cite anyone camping on public property if a shelter is available. Unlike SB 1011, authorities need only provide 24 hours’ notice before taking enforcement action.

According to the city, police take a scaled approach to enforcement. Before law enforcement gets involved, city outreach teams speak to individuals living in homeless encampments, informing them of the ordinance and its ramifications. Following this, officers first deal with encampments near schools and parks before moving on to other locations covered by the ordinance.

California’s homeless population is estimated between 171,000 and 181,000. The conservative estimate is still over two times higher than New York’s homeless population, 74,000. This is followed by Florida at nearly 26,000.

Statewide, California has over 730 homeless housing programs. Los Angeles has 301. San Francisco has 88; Riverside, 83. 

Historically, urban areas have larger homeless populations than do rural areas. Urban areas also have more resources and programs available to the homeless, including shelters. Many rural communities do not have homeless shelters; which means if SB 1011, as written, becomes law, rural communities may have a law that does nothing to mitigate the problem of homelessness in their communities.

Darren Fraser
Reporter