Thursday, June 25, 2009

Homeless Campers bitter over last week's sweep

[Psst. This article was written twenty years ago by then Bee staff writer Dale Maharidge (who won a Pulizer Prize in 1990 for a book that was an indictment of the tenant-farming system). Except for the name of the mayor and others, the article reads like something that could have been written today.] This is starkly so because the police rousted the homeless who were sleeping on the sidewalk in front of Union Gospel Mission last night. -- Tom
Jose Chaparro scratched his toe in the dust of the vacant lot and talked bitterly of the city work crew that came last week and leveled his crude shelter – and, he says, destroyed his work tools.

"I'm a roofer. I can't work without my tools," said Chaparro, 38, a working homeless man who came to Sacramento from Phoenix, Ariz., two months ago. "I figured I'd work, make some money and get a house."

On Tuesday, Legal Services of Northern California met with Mayor Anne Rudin, who apologized to Chaparro. And then Legal Services filed a claim in behalf of Chaparro and five others – including a pregnant woman – who say their personal property was destroyed by the city.

Their sleeping bags and other possessions were crunched in a garbage compactor as part of a continuing city policy to sweep the homeless from the Discovery Park area. Sacramento, like at least 10 other California cities, has instituted hard-line policies against the homeless who camp illegally.

Chaparro admits it was an illegal camp. But the law and reality are two different matters. There's no room in any of the emergency shelters, according to the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency. The homeless had nowhere to go.

So, about a month ago, they built a few huts in some bushes near 11th and North D streets. The people in the five little homes became "like a family."

Chaparro was waiting for lunch July 25 at Loaves and Fishes, a downtown soup kitchen, when a friend ran up and said city workers were trashing their homes.

"Evidently the campsite was vacant when we went in to do the cleanup," said Dennis Kubo, code enforcement officer for the city Neighborhood Services Division.

Kubo said an occupant of the camp came by when the cleanup workers were almost finished, but by then, they'd used a garbage truck to compact most of the things found on the site. Kubo said the items found appeared to be mostly debris. Juvenile offenders from a work program were used to do the labor, and Kubo said they did not mention anything of value found on the site.

"If there was, we definitely put them off to the side," said Kubo. "I did find one bag that had a wallet, and some identification, and some medication, and I put that off to the side."

Chaparro said he lost knee chaps, hammers and an electric saw that he took to job sites – items he said are necessary for him to get work. Another friend who is a roofer lost some tools, too, he said, and thyroid medication. They estimate the value of these items to be at least $500 and maybe as high as $700.

"I don't like what happened," said Mayor Rudin. "I don't want to see people's property confiscated. Yet I can't order staff to stop litter control. They're doing what the council directed them to do."

Rudin said she wants to study ways to revise city policy so that the belongings of homeless people are not destroyed without warning.

And she said she would attempt to expedite the claim against the city filed by the six homeless people.

"I think the mayor is sincerely concerned about homeless people," said Barrie Roberts, a staff attorney for Legal Services of Northern California who filed the claim in behalf of the homeless people.

"She's also serious about upholding the law," added Roberts about the city's commitment to keep homeless people from such camps.

"There we have a difference of opinion. We think these people should be left alone unless they are causing a public hazard. There's no reason to treat them like dogs.

"They (the city) need to start seeing them not as invisible pieces of trash, but as people, at least as important as an abandoned car. At least an abandoned car gets ten days' notice before it is removed."

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