Few areas in Sacramento are as dire as Commerce Circle. Here, the homelessness crisis feels intractable, and every complex reality converges into a seemingly untenable position. How can Sacramento area governments serve our most vulnerable, address the needs of affected residents and businesses, and mitigate public hazards?
The city’s high-profile parking code enforcement against the sprawling encampment Monday, when it towed the 18 vehicles remaining out of an estimated 160 given notice to vacate last week, was a clear example of what not to do.
It’s not because the people living there never should have been removed; they needed to be as a matter of public health and safety for both the unhoused and the businesses affected for almost two years. It’s because the people forced to leave had nowhere else to go.
No shelter space or safe ground parking sites were available. Commerce Circle campers told The Bee that they were not provided with motel or housing vouchers.
Commerce Circle required a complex solution. Instead, it was dealt with in a way that was simplistic and inhumane. Now the untold number of people who lived in RVs, trailers and cars in the camp have been pushed somewhere else while those in tents were allowed to stay. The city’s approach was half-baked and ill-timed, undermining trust at a critical juncture.
Sacramento code enforcement officials apparently used an exit ramp in the Martin v. Boise ruling, which bars camp evictions unless there is sufficient shelter space, because public rights-of-way such as streets can be cleared if encampments are blocking them. City Department of Community Response officials have been visiting the area for months, offering what limited resources they had.
Since July, neighboring residents and businesses have filed more than 50 complaints about the encampment. But why move ahead with enforcement now? Why not wait until there is another sanctioned parking site or other facilities and services available? Once again, Sacramento County, the region’s largest health and human services provider, remains egregiously absent when resources are needed most.
Sacramento leaders have spent this entire year trying to generate trust, goodwill and support for the city’s latest policies to combat homelessness. The City Council has asked the public — including unhoused people, nonprofits, advocates and businesses — for a leap of faith on a $100 million plan that could bring relief to the crisis.
Yet implementation has been unbearably slow. None of the 20 proposed safe ground sites have opened since the council unanimously approved the plan in August or since federal COVID dollars were allocated in October. Onerous bureaucracy has impeded any chance at progress.
Meanwhile, Mayor Darrell Steinberg is trying to convince the public that his proposed right-to-housing ordinance can humanely and effectively generate shelter capacity and compel cooperation from homeless people. Steinberg said Tuesday that he disagreed with the “timing and manner” of the Commerce Circle sweep, highlighting a rift between the aspirations of Sacramento policymakers and the practices of city departments.
Removing the vehicles from Commerce Circle and displacing the unhoused people who live in them may lessen the urban despair in one corner of Sacramento. But it intensifies the issue everywhere else, undermining public faith in policies that need broad support to be effective.