The city of Sacramento this month struck a deal to lease a vacant lot at no cost to an auto repair company before clearing the property of a substantial homeless encampment.
It’s the second time this year that Sacramento reached an agreement to lease a 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 had allowed the encampment to become a public nuisance.
This time, the sweep at Lexington Street and Dixieanne Avenue took place at a lot the City Council previously identified as one that would host a government-sanctioned site for homeless services.
In August, the council directed staff to open the space for 50 tiny homes for 100 homeless residents. It was part of the city’s so-called homeless siting plan, a $100 million effort that aimed to create shelter beds and spaces for more than 2,000 unhoused people. Some people who were living at the site this week said they moved there anticipating the planned tiny homes.
The new agreement with the car repair company, executed 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 company to use the lot for daytime parking and storage for its nearby shop for up to five years while a city agency markets the property for sale, city spokesman Tim Swanson said.
Wednesday morning, after posting a notice, dozens of police officers, code enforcement officers and tow trucks arrived at the dirt lot in Old North Sacramento. Over a dozen homeless men and women scrambled 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 lot in a trailer hoping to get a tiny home. After she moved her trailer and truck off the lot, she sat on the curb holding her panting Chihuahua Snickers.
“There’s supposed to be tiny homes,” said Simmons, wearing a surgical mask, afraid of contracting the coronavirus. “Where are the tiny homes at? They’re not doing anything for homeless, just shifting us from one place to another.”
Like many, Simmons moved her trailer to a nearby street. She moves it every two days to prevent it from being towed. The city offered her a space at a safe parking lot on Front Street, but it could not fit both her trailer and truck, so she declined, she said.
Fred Gurr, 58 and missing an eye, was also hoping to get into one of the city’s tiny homes. He was staying in a white shack on the lot that was barely big enough for him and his Chihuahua Chompers, but at least it kept the rain out, and shielded him from the blazing sun, he said. A tow truck towed it away Wednesday. He does not know how to get it back.
“Heck yeah I would’ve gone into one,” Gurr said of the city tiny homes, sitting on a curb surrounded by bags of his belongings, petting Chompers on his lap. “I think that would’ve been great.”
Kenneth Borum, 53, also said he would have gone into a city tiny home. He does not know where he will go, and will miss the tight-knit camp, which provided safety, he said.
“On the lot we looked out for each other,” Borum said. “We didn’t have to worry about people stealing our stuff.”
Sweat droplets poured off Borum’s face as he spoke, drenching his black T-shirt. Sacramento’s temperature hit 103 degrees Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service.
The camp has been causing an issue for local businesses in the industrial area for nearly two years, said Billy O’Nair, an employee at RV Doctor Inc., a repair shop adjacent to the lot. He was glad the city was clearing the lot, but wished the city would have done it earlier, and also wished the city would have moved everyone into shelter or housing, he said.
“It needs to be cleared,” O’Nair said. “There was drug use, theft of generators and parts. We had to increase our security, our lot filled with rats, there was defecation, and needles.”
O’Nair has given the unhoused individuals food and water, and said he would have kicked in money to a fund to pay for shelters or housing, if the city had started such a fund.
Councilman Sean Loloee, who represents the neighborhood, did not return calls seeking comment. The lease did not go to the council for approval because it was under $25,000.
Sacramento businesses sue over homeless
The lease and sweep near Caliber Collision underscores the pressure business groups and taxpayers are putting on the city to address its worsening homeless crisis.
The city for the most part reduced its clearings of homeless camps after a 2018 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling known as Martin vs. Boise generally prevented local governments from clearing homeless camps on public property unless they could offer someone a shelter bed.
Business groups are backing a November ballot initiative that would compel the city to provide camping sites or shelter for 60% of its estimated homeless population, an effort to get people off the streets and out of public spaces. Homeless activists worry its language would also allow the city to clear more camps from public property without offering shelter.
At the same time, some businesses are suing the city urging it to clear more camps well before the opening of enough shelter beds.
Caliber Collision’s lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for Eastern California alleged a homeless person broke into the business and stole equipment, and that multiple homeless people have threatened customers.
“Homeless people have overtaken city-owned properties adjacent to Caliber, which have become an encampment and center for nuisance activity and drug sales and open drug use,” the lawsuit read. “Homeless people dump raw sewage, human waste, and chemicals, clogging gutters close to Caliber.”
When the company first filed the lawsuit, which claimed a public nuisance and state-created danger, it appeared the city was going to fight it.
“Caliber does not have a constitutionally protected right to operate a business in a location devoid of individuals experiencing homelessness,” the city wrote in a January court document.
Caliber Collision did not respond to a request for comment.
Will leases withstand a court challenge?
It’s unclear if Caliber will drop the lawsuit now due to the lease, or if the city will ever open a tiny home village or safe parking site there. The property remains in the homeless siting plan, but Public Works Director Ryan Moore did not list it as one of the “active sites” during a presentation to the council last month.
The lease allows Caliber to install a new fence, security cameras, and signage to prohibit trespassing.
Last month, the city leased a highly visible city property at Fair Oaks Boulevard and Howe Avenue to nearby property owners for $250 a month, then cleared the encampment of more than 30 people. The property is now vacant with a six-foot iron fence around it.
So far, the city has not faced a legal challenge contesting the leases it offered to private groups before clearing homeless camps. It’s unclear if it would pass muster under the 2018 court decision that limited camp clearings, said Sacramento civil rights attorney Mark Merin.
“I don’t think a public entity can evade its responsibility by contracting out to a private entity,” Merin said. “Until someone challenges it in court, though, they will be free to pursue their own strategy.”