The Stockton Boulevard camp on December 25th. Photo by Crystal Sanchez (@sacramento.homeless.union on Instagram).

On December 24th, 2020, at around 10 PM, Sacramento Police Department officers arrived at the intersection of J and 30th St. According to an eyewitness report, they swept through the corner lot, demanding the homeless who were camped there either leave or face citations. The homeless could only take what they could carry, and, according to Crystal Sanchez, police, “smashed their tents… leaving trash across the property.”

Sanchez is an activist and president of the Sacramento Homeless Union—an organization which advocates for unhoused Sacramentans. She arrived on scene soon after the sweep began. “It is absolutely inhumane,” she said, “there is no shelter, no warming centers for these people to be at.” 

Access Local reached out to the Sacramento Police Department for comment, and they disputed this description of events, saying, “the incident was a call for service and not a ‘sweep’.” According to Sac PD, “On December 24, 2020 at approximately 9:30 p.m., Sacramento Police Department patrol officers responded to the area of 30th Street and J Street regarding a felony assault that occurred. The victim of the assault was in his tent when a suspect struck the victim with a pole. The victim sustained minor injury from the incident. The suspect had fled the area. Officers conducted a canvass of the area for any potential witnesses and generated a report. The Sacramento Police Department continues to follow CDC and Sacramento County stay at home order guidelines regarding COVID-19.”

This follows months of back-and-forth between community activists, the Police Department, and the city. City leaders, including Mayor Darrel Steinberg and City Manager Howard Chan, have recently been criticized for not opening warming centers sooner. Capital Public Radio published a biography and obituary of Greg Tarola, the first homeless person to die from the cold this winter, highlighting the issue. Since that article was published, city officials lowered the threshold to open one 60-person warming center at the Sacramento Public Library Galleria. 

The sweeps also conflict with multiple public health orders to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Both the federal Centers for Disease Control and Sacramento County Public Health Officer have released guidance prohibiting the sweeping of homeless camps. Doing so distributes the homeless across the community, increasing the risk of COVID-19 spread. 

CDC recommendations released early on in the pandemic state, “Unless individual housing units are available, do not clear encampments during community spread of COVID-19.” Similarly, Sacramento County’s May 26th stay-at-home order reads “CDC guidance for those experiencing homelessness outside of shelters is to be strictly followed… Do not cite, clear, or relocate encampments, or cars, RV’s, and trailers used as shelter during community spread of COVID-19.” More recently, county guidance has been updated to state “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that guidance for those experiencing homelessness outside of shelters continue to be followed.”

Although Sac PD says they are following CDC and county guidelines, in late July 2020, advocates including Sanchez won in court against the department for breaking these guidelines. The court ruling issued in the case prohibits police from removing homeless camps situated on public property without providing shelter at an alternate location. This does not appear to have stopped the Sacramento Police Department, however, with activists saying the department has been flaunting these rules for months. 

“There is absolutely no accountability coming from our elected leaders,” stated Sanchez.