In his civil filing against the City of Sacramento, District Attorney Thien Ho seems to want a “trial of the century” on homelessness, with city officials alone as defendants in the court of public opinion and a future hearing replete with hundreds of witnesses, weeks of testimony and a dramatic jury verdict.
And then what?
Ho’s 36-page lawsuit is a non-scientific, anecdotal recounting of visible squalor on Sacramento’s streets. It displays an obsession with policing, an avoidance of the complex real remedies, and any mention of the underlying factors driving the crisis of homelessness. It’s a nearly worthless legal document that is all bluster stacked on emotion and piled on frustration which we all feel. Fittingly, the complaint ends in a whimper.
Alleging that homelessness is a public nuisance within Sacramento’s city limits (nowhere else), Ho offers no remedy other than “to enforce the law.” Alleging that homelessness is also a private nuisance, he seeks unspecified “equitable and injunctive relief.”
The sideshow Ho presided over is bad legal strategy compounded by the horrible court process looming ahead. But with an election year on the horizon, the lawsuit makes for very popular politics that play to many people’s emotions. And that’s the point here. It’s Ho’s only salient point, really.
Ho parrots homeless talking points of business leaders
With his office stuffed with business leaders whose homeless talking points Ho is happily parroting, the district attorney is likely getting more pats on the back right now than anyone in Sacramento, soaking up his moment as a career prosecutor cheered on for “doing something” about homelessness.
What will that “something” achieve to alleviate homelessness in Sacramento? Like Ho’s complaint, Sacramento business leaders and frustrated residents only pay lip service to shelter, housing, drug treatment and mental health while focusing intently on the enforcement and abatement of squalor in our midst.
The constituency that Ho represents wants the worsening homelessness crisis to move out of sight, away from their streets, storefronts, empty lots and everywhere else people are living and sleeping.
The courtroom at times can be a catalyst for profound change in society. Homelessness, with all of its causes and all its responses from so many governments, cannot be put on trial. Here or anywhere. But we have a district attorney who tragically thinks he can litigate a solution to a crisis plaguing cities across America.
At a Tuesday press briefing attended by both victims of Sacramento encampments and a curious array of business leaders, Ho outlined his game plan.
“What comes next is that we begin the process of litigation. What comes next is that we will be demanding text messages, emails and production of documents. What comes next is we will be noticing depositions of witnesses.
“We are going to take this to trial. We will be calling 400 to 500 witnesses that will talk about the city’s actions and inaction.”
If the complaint is any indication, there will be a recounting by neighbors of homeless encampments on C Street around Stanford Park. And R Street. And 17th Street. And downtown on G Street, across from the district attorney’s office, where vandals have repeatedly broken windows.
The trial will head south at some point to Broadway and X streets. There, a victim said “he spoke with City Councilwoman Katie Valenzuela (and) she told him to have more compassion for the unhoused and that they meant no harm,” according to Ho’s complaint. And then onto Commerce Circle. Back to midtown along F and I streets. Over to Colonial Heights. Back to midtown’s W Street. North to B Street and Richards Boulevard and onward to the Del Paso bike trail. And then east to Auburn and Marconi Circle.
“And at the end of the day, after a jury and a judge rules in favor of the people, we will ensure that the city follow through with its mandate,” Ho said. “And its mandate is to keep our streets clean and safe.”
Apparently, after a jury has spoken, our homeless problems will be solved. Justice will have arrived on the streets of Sacramento.
“We think that the homeless and the unhoused crisis is bleak and dark,” Ho said. “But I’m always reminded of a saying: It is darkest right before the dawn. I can tell you the sunrise is coming soon enough, and it will shine its beautiful rays of light upon our city of trees.”
Meanwhile, let’s return to reality and some math. Sacramento County has approximately 9,000 homeless people sleeping somewhere outside on any given night. It has a county jail with fewer than 2,500 beds, nearly all of them occupied at any given time. “Enforcing the law” will not make any of this disappear.
As for politics, Ho on Tuesday had nothing but criticism for the city and nothing but praise for Sacramento County. This is despite how the city has developed more shelter space and despite how the city is pursuing more with new “safe ground” managed encampments. Such polar opposite assessments of these governments by the county’s top prosecutor follow an emerging political script here in town.
This script led to the passage of Measure O last year by city voters, a sham initiative that purported to improve homelessness in Sacramento but has done nothing of the kind. Led by the established business community, it blames Sacramento’s leadership for everything as it increasingly leans leftward while finding no fault with a county that is solely responsible for delivering mental health and substance abuse services to those who need them.
Meanwhile, City Hall should ensure all its printers are working properly as it prepares to print out all kinds of homeless-related emails and texts for the district attorney. We have, after all, a marathon trial of historic proportions to prepare for.
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