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Homeless Advocate Sues Sacramento Over Camping Ordinance

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  • Bill Holmes
    Advocate for Sacramento homeless sues city over camping ordinance from SacBee
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 9, 2010

      Advocate for Sacramento homeless sues city over camping ordinance

      from SacBee -- Sacramento City News by chubert@... (Cynthia Hubert)
       
      Attorney Mark Merin let the homeless camp on his lot; police rousted them. On Monday, he sued.

      City police violated the constitutional rights of homeless people by repeatedly rousting them from a rogue campground last summer, a lawsuit filed Monday in Sacramento Superior Court charges.

      The suit, filed on behalf of 23 homeless men and women by civil rights lawyer Mark Merin, asks that the city stop enforcing its "cruel and inhumane" anti-camping ordinance, and seeks unspecified monetary damages. It names the city of Sacramento and the Sacramento Police Department as defendants.

      Among the plaintiffs is Michael James Muzyka, 46, who recently died in part because of his longtime exposure to the elements, Merin said. Other plaintiffs are in temporary winter housing or sleep along the rivers, on sidewalks or on the streets, he said.

      At least 1,200 men, women and children sleep outdoors in Sacramento on any given night because of a shortage of shelter beds, the suit estimates. Because the city prohibits camping for more than 24 hours at a time in undesignated areas, they are forced to move from place to place to avoid arrest, the suit says.

      Last summer about 30 people set up a makeshift campsite at a lot Merin owns near 12th and C streets. For about three weeks, police raided the encampment, seizing tents, sleeping bags and other property, and detaining and citing homeless people.

      The camp disbanded after city leaders including Mayor Kevin Johnson pledged to find a solution, including the possibility of establishing a legal "safe ground" campsite with basic services.

      As of this week, said Merin, the city has "done nothing" to address the long-term issue, although Johnson did find temporary winter shelter for about 300 homeless people.

      "I'm very frustrated by how the city has handled this," said Merin. "Anything that we accomplish, we're going to have to get through the courts and from private folks" who want to contribute to the "safe ground" cause, he said.

      The City Attorney's Office and Assistant City Manager Cassandra Jennings declined to comment on Merin's lawsuit.

      "We haven't seen or been served the document, and we typically don't respond to legal matters," said city spokeswoman Amy Williams.

      Police spokesman Sgt. Norm Leong declined to comment on the suit. He said officers will continue "enforcing the camping ordinance. That hasn't changed."

      The lawsuit accuses the city of false arrest, arguing that the camping ordinance is enforced only against homeless people. It asks the court to force the city to stop enforcing the ordinance because it "criminalizes" homelessness, deprives homeless people of their rights under the California Constitution to "freedom of travel," equal protection and due process of law, and is "unconstitutionally vague."

      "It's not a health-and-safety, as the city has stated. It's a tool to control the homeless," Merin said.

      He said similar but "less draconian" ordinances have been successfully challenged in court in other cities, including Los Angeles and San Diego.

      The goal of the suit, said Merin, is "recognition by the city that homeless people can be outside, that they stop arresting them and taking their stuff, and sanction an area where they are allowed to be."

      The stakes are high, Merin said.

      He said Muzyka had various health problems including AIDS and diabetes.

      "He was a sick man and was doing very poorly outside," he said. "When your health is fragile, you need a place that is calm and where you can relieve stress and deal with your health problems, not be constantly focusing on where you might rest at night."

      Muzyka spoke at meetings about the need for housing. In December, he became one of several "safe ground" leaders to receive a motel voucher for shelter through the winter.

      He died in the motel a few weeks later, Merin said.

      "When your health is fragile, you need a place that is calm and where you can relieve stress and deal with your health problems, not be constantly focusing on where you might rest at night."

       
      Attorney Mark Merin let the homeless camp on his lot; police rousted them. On Monday, he sued.

      http://www.sacbee.com/city/story/2522973.html#mi_rss=Sacramento%20City%20News
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