Sacramento Mayor Trades Barbs with DA over ‘Unprecedented’ Homeless Crisis

Terry Collins
USA TODAY August 9, 2023

OAKLAND, Calif. – A war of words is brewing between the two top political leaders in Sacramento, California, over the city’s escalating homelessness crisis and approach to enforcing the rules.

Sacramento County District Attorney Thien Ho and Mayor Darrell Steinberg are at odds on how to solve the issue as Ho sent Steinberg a letter on Monday threatening to take legal action and file criminal charges against the city’s handling of its unsheltered population.

“Our community is caught between compassion and chaos as we reach a breaking point that requires action,” Ho said in his letter that said Sacramento’s homeless population has increased by 250% in the last six years and become “an unprecedented public safety crisis.”

Ho, who took office in January, said he’s considering criminal charges using state public nuisance laws if it doesn’t make several homeless-related changes within 30 days. The dispute between Ho and Steinberg in California’s capital city comes nearly five months after California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a $1 billion plan to provide 1,200 small homes in cities including Sacramento, San Jose, and Los Angeles as well as San Diego County.

Sacramento County has 9,278 individuals experiencing homelessness, according to a 2022 census count by Sacramento Steps Forward, a private nonprofit organization. The figure is a 67% increase from a similar census conducted in 2019 which tallied 5,570 unhoused people in the county.

According to a study released in June, nearly a third of all people who are unhoused in the United States live in California. The study, conducted by The University of California, San Francisco Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative, also revealed that almost 90% reported that the cost of housing was the main reason they could not escape homelessness.

Ho’s proposed changes in Sacramento include clearing the city’s 16 homeless encampments, creating more temporary emergency shelters, and adding a daytime camping ban where homeless people must put their belongings in storage from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Ho also wants to cite those refusing shelter and hire four more city attorneys to enforce laws. He said his two-page letter comes after his office recently sent a survey to Sacramento residents.

The responses included residents claiming being assaulted at gunpoint by an unhoused individual and a homeowner saying she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder due to constant harassment and break-ins by unhoused people living in an encampment across the street from her house.

Mayor fires back at Ho’s claims

On Tuesday, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg took aim at Ho telling reporters he met with the district attorney on July 26 to possibly reach a partnership addressing the city’s homeless issues. But instead of a deal, Steinberg said Ho is now threatening legal action.

Steinberg said Tuesday that Ho’s letter “deflects responsibility, takes credit for programs the city initiated, lacks basic understanding of existing shelter management systems and funding structures, and includes a series of demands that would cripple the city financially.”

In a news release, Steinberg further said: “The District Attorney offered no substantive partnership in which the courts would work with the city to increase the ability to prosecute quality of life crimes. Instead, the District Attorney demands that the city shoulder the financial burden for prosecuting criminal offenses.”

During the meeting with the district attorney, Steinberg said he proposed a list of proposals including stricter enforcement of misdemeanor crimes, a comprehensive strategy to prosecute those who commit “quality-of-life” crimes while having a serious mental illness or are under the influence of a controlled substance, finding alternatives for those unhoused who commit low-level offenses and the DA office funding four community prosecutors who would work across the city.

“I propose that we all commit to the following guidelines, requirements and principals so that we can deliver real relief to the people suffering on our streets and to our community members,” Steinberg said.

IS THE AMBITIOUS PLAN WORKING?: LA’s move to solve homelessness has moved thousands off the streets. Advocates say the plan is falling short.

‘Adequately address this public safety crisis’

Not to be outdone, Ho responded late Tuesday to Steinberg’s comments.

“This local crisis has been made worse by local decisions and indecisions,” Ho said. “Therefore, we have taken the first formal step towards litigation against the City of Sacramento. However, we are providing the City an opportunity to adequately address this public safety crisis.”

Shelly Orio, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, declined Tuesday to specify what type of litigation Ho would pursue and which Sacramento city officials could face possible criminal charges.