City of Sacramento sued by DA Thien Ho for homeless camps, citing ‘descent into decay’

Two months after Sacramento County District Attorney Thien Ho threatened legal action if Sacramento city officials did not do more to address the homeless crisis, the D.A. sued the city Tuesday for creating a public nuisance.

The lawsuit, which was filed along with a companion suit by city residents and business owners, is the boldest move yet in the ongoing dispute between Ho and city leaders.

Ho said his lawsuit is the first of its kind in the nation, and insisted in a news conference and an interview with The Sacramento Bee that he was forced into the move to ensure public safety.

“Enough is enough,” Ho said. “We need to address this public safety crisis for both the housed and the unhoused.”

The 36-page lawsuit, which does not name individual city leaders as defendants, paints Sacramento as a once vibrant city facing “descent into decay and this utter collapse into chaos” that is unsafe for both housed residents and the homeless.

“The unhoused deserve to feel and be safe,” according to the lawsuit, which is signed by Ho. “Among the chronically homeless, those who have been unhoused for over a year, 9 out of 10 women have been victims of sexual assault.

“During the recent heat wave in the summer of 2023, unhoused people were seen walking on the sizzling sidewalk barefoot. During the cold winter months of 2022, unhoused people were seen wrapped in blankets standing in the pouring rain.

“It’s not compassionate to let someone die in the sweltering summer sun or freeze to death in the cold winter night. It’s not compassionate to allow unsafe conditions to fester so badly that a 14-year-old boy cannot ride his bike to school or a group of little girls can’t play soccer on a field littered with needles.

“It’s not compassionate when someone in a wheelchair cannot use a sidewalk blocked by tents or a small business is forced to close forever due to repeated broken windows and vandalism.”

The suit notes that in the last seven years — the same time period in which Darrell Steinberg has served as mayor — “Sacramento’s unhoused population has exploded by over 250%.”

“There are more homeless people in Sacramento than San Francisco,” the suit says. “Our community is at a breaking point.”

Sacramento County District Attorney Thien Ho holds a poster collage titled “criminal behavior” as he announces Tuesday that his office is suing the city of Sacramento for creating a public nuisance by failing to take stronger action on homeless camps.
Sacramento County District Attorney Thien Ho holds a poster collage titled “criminal behavior” as he announces Tuesday that his office is suing the city of Sacramento for creating a public nuisance by failing to take stronger action on homeless camps.

Mayor Steinberg fires back

Steinberg fired back minutes after the lawsuit was announced, saying, “No local government in the Sacramento region has done more to address the crisis on our streets: 1,200 new emergency beds, ordinances to protect sidewalks, schools and other sensitive sites; a legally binding partnership with the county; thousands of new affordable housing units-to name a few.”

“The frustration that members of our community feel is absolutely justified,” Steinberg said in a statement. “The council has endorsed and is pressing for strong enforcement of our codes and the law. But the D.A.’s lawsuit will not clear a single sidewalk nor get a single person off the streets. We are working day and night to enforce our laws and provide relief to our community while avoiding the futile trap of just moving people endlessly from one block to the next.”

“Frankly, we have no time for the District Attorney’s performative distraction from the hard work we all need to do together to solve this complex social problem plaguing urban centers throughout the state and nation.

“The city needs real partnership from the region’s leaders, not politics and lawsuits. Let’s just do the work.”

City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood said in a statement that the city has attempted to work with Ho’s office “multiple times in recent months, stating that collaboration is the best path forward.”

“However, it sadly appears the D.A. would rather point fingers and cast blame than partner to achieve meaningful solutions for our community,” Alcala Wood said. “The city looks forward to responding to the D.A.’s claims in court.”

The dispute has been brewing for months as Ho has demanded more action from city officials, including enforcing a ban on daytime camping and issuing citations to homeless residents who block city sidewalks or entrances to public buildings and businesses.

“I have a mandate to ensure public safety,” Ho said in an interview. “At the end of the day, it’s about public safety.

“It’s about public safety, not politics. It’s about public safety and ensuring that the community is safe. That’s my number one objective, my number one mission, my number one mandate.”

Ho said the suit is aimed at getting city officials to provide Safe Ground sites to replace the hodgepodge of encampments that blanket parts of Sacramento, and that he also wants drug treatment and mental health help provided.

Sacramento County District Attorney Thien Ho stands Tuesday with supporters and victims of alleged crimes by homeless residents at a press conference announcing that his office is suing the city of Sacramento for creating a public nuisance by failing to take stronger action on homeless camps.
Sacramento County District Attorney Thien Ho stands Tuesday with supporters and victims of alleged crimes by homeless residents at a press conference announcing that his office is suing the city of Sacramento for creating a public nuisance by failing to take stronger action on homeless camps.

“I want to be clear,” Ho said. “There is no intention, no desire for my office at all to criminalize those that are homeless or put them in jail.

“Those that are suffering from mental health and drug addiction, we want treatment, we want services. But there has to be a means to encourage that and require it.”

Ho said a survey of area residents and business owners has generated more than 3,000 responses from people telling harrowing stories of threats of violence from some homeless residents near their houses and business owners complaining of broken windows and vandalism.

He filled a conference room downtown with many residents and business owners, some of whom stood behind him during the news conference as two video screens showed photographs of filthy campsites and neighborhoods littered with hypodermic needles and other refuse.

Ho, a veteran prosecutor, handled the news conference in part like a trial, discussing the emotional damage homeless camps have had on neighborhoods and soliciting comments from some longtime Sacramento residents.

One homeowner at the news conference who lives on W Street, and asked that her name not be used, said a resident of a nearby camp threatened her husband after he tried to stop the man from starting a fire in front of their home.

“You’re a dead man walking,” she recalled the man saying. “We called the police and it took them four hours to show up even though he was on parole.”

Specific homeless encampments cited

The lawsuit cites “victims” of 14 encampments stretching from downtown to Auburn Way to the Del Paso Bike Trail and recounts residents repeatedly calling 911, 311, the mayor and council members seeking help and essentially being ignored.

A section of the suit focused on a camp at 29th and C streets alleges that “encampment inhabitants commit crimes regularly including threatening to kill victims while armed with deadly weapons, openly selling and use of narcotics, breaking into resident cars and homes, masturbating in public, and engaging in prostitution.”

Youth soccer games at nearby Leland Stanford Park “had to be stopped due to the constant presence of hypodermic needles and crack pipes,” the suit says. “Recent cleanups have resulted in the collection of over 750 used needles.”

“People should be able to walk down the street and not be assaulted,” Ho said in an interview with The Bee. “Businesses should be allowed to open without their windows damaged or tents blocking their entryway.

“People that are in wheelchairs, kids that are riding their bikes (should) be able to do so on the streets without being impeded.

“But more importantly, we’re going to be able to get people off the streets and save lives and make the lives of those that are unhoused better. That’s at the end of the day what we’re gonna be able to accomplish.”

The suit, which Ho personally walked into Sacramento Superior Court to file on Tuesday morning before his news conference, alleges that “the city’s refusal to maintain the public property under its control and to enforce laws and local ordinances thereon facilitates and perpetuates a public nuisance.”

“This failure to consistently enforce the law has and continues to convert city parks, sidewalks, and streets into rotting cesspools overrun with crime and disease,” the suit says. “The unsanitary conditions in the homeless encampments are injurious to the public health and place many people at risk of contracting noxious diseases.”

The lawsuit also alleges the city’s inaction has affected business and homeowners’ property values, something tantamount to inverse condemnation proceedings used by public entities to seize private holdings.

The lawsuit does not seek monetary damages but says it wants “only equitable and injunctive relief.”

The lawsuit was filed along with a separate suit on behalf of business owners and residents who echo the D.A.’s complaints, and Sacramento attorney Ognian Gavrilov accompanied Ho to court to file his suit.

“Sacramento is the most important and influential state capital in the country,” Gavrilov’s suit says. “As the epicenter of the fifth largest economy in the world, the decisions emanating from the city reverberate throughout the United States and across the globe.

“Sadly, the city is dying. Darrell Steinberg, the city’s mayor, is the executioner. The failure to address the ubiquitous spread of homelessness throughout the City is Steinberg’s poison.”

Gavrilov contends that the homeless crisis is the result of what the suit calls the “Steinberg Decree” and claims the decree “prohibits police and other city officials from clearing dangerous homeless encampments that clutter the sidewalks and pollute local neighborhoods.”

“The Steinberg Decree has transformed this once bucolic tree-lined city into a rotting cesspool of decay and despair, the suit says.”

County not a party to suit

Neither lawsuit targets the county, and Ho said he has seen more engagement by county officials and Sheriff Jim Cooper in policing homeless camps.

“If you look at what’s been going on in the last year or so, the county’s made great strides in addressing the unhoused crisis,” Ho said. “You have about an additional 300 to 500 beds that are opening.

“You have anywhere between 10 and 15 mental health navigators that have been hired and will be hired additionally to help engage for services. In addition to that, you have Sheriff Jim Cooper, who’s been very active in enforcing and making sure that there is compliance with the law.”

The city has 1,200 homeless beds available on any given night, while the county also has 1,200. Officials estimate there are about 9,300 homeless residents in the county.

Ho said in July that he was investigating city leaders for potential civil or criminal violations, but has since decided to only pursue the lawsuit for now.

“For the time being, my office will not be filing criminal charges based upon evidentiary and strategic reasons,” he said.

But he noted that filing a suit gives his office the ability to pursue discovery evidence, “to ask questions, to take depositions, to receive emails and text messages.”

And he made clear that he intends to follow through in court using residents and business owners as witnesses against the city.

“We are going to take this to trial,” Ho said. “We will be calling 400 to 500 witnesses who will be testifying about the city’s actions and inaction.”

Ho said he did not believe filing suit would create a permanent rift with city officials, saying “time heals all wounds.”

“Will it ruffle some feathers? Will it hurt some feelings? Unfortunately, yes,” he said. “But our responsibility as elected officials is to make sure that we keep our streets safe and clean. And frankly, that hasn’t happened for years.”