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Guest Opinion: California’s homeless crisis and Citrus Heights’ local response

Guest column submitted by Police Chief Ron Lawrence–
The growing California homeless population is alarming. Communities across our state have experienced unprecedented increases in homelessness, with some metropolitan cities reaching epidemic proportions.

While homelessness was a main theme of the governor’s State of the State address recently, the fact is: solutions to homelessness are falling on local jurisdictions to address at a local level.

There are many causes to homeless in California; the primary reasons expressed by state legislators in Sacramento are expensive housing and high cost of living. While these may be true, there are other core explanations to homelessness, including changes in state and federal laws resulting in unintended consequences to local communities that strain local public safety resources and put more offenders on our neighborhood streets.

Proposition 47 reduced felony drug possession to simple misdemeanors, ensuring a practical elimination of court-mandated drug rehabilitation programs removing incentives for those addicted to drugs to get much-needed help.

Prison Realignment reduced the state’s prison population by releasing convicted felons into local communities, while inadequate bed space for individuals suffering from mental illness creates an untenable situation for police to assist this vulnerable population.

These and other state mandates and takeaways have contributed to the proliferation of homelessness.

Notably, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last April prohibits local governments from preventing anyone from sleeping on public lands, which now allows homeless to sleep (not camp) in public areas if adequate shelter space is not available. Our local ordinance here in Citrus Heights is currently effective and enforceable, and the Police Department responds within the law to illegal encampments.

Q&A: Can Citrus Heights police still enforce camping ban after 9th Circuit Court ruling?

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates more than 151,000 people are homeless in California, with an estimated 5,570 homeless in Sacramento County. This represents a 19% increase in Sacramento County over the past two years.

Fortunately, in Citrus Heights our estimated local homeless population is 163 people in 2019, which was down 14.7% from the previous year’s estimate of 191 in 2018. We need to continue the successful trend we are having in Citrus Heights.    

Every community has a different philosophy to address their homeless population, and while Citrus Heights is not immune to the increased homeless population that has occurred throughout California, we believe in our approach, given the state and federal laws, and current resources available to the City.

Our philosophy is a two-prong approach: getting as many of the homeless assistance they need and into appropriate programs or shelters, followed by enforcement of those who commit criminal acts.

Locally, we are fortunate to have a strong community partnership with HART (Homeless Assistance and Resource Team), who shares in our mission to provide vital resources to those who are experiencing homelessness, while working to keep our public spaces, neighborhoods, and streets safe for everyone.

During 2018 and 2019, our Navigator very effectively achieved permanent housing for a total of 311 people experiencing homelessness. When we assist, our local homeless population continues to shrink as they become self-reliant and maintain a sustainable lifestyle off the streets.

I consider that a big win for everybody.  

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At the same time, there are individuals who refuse service and others who commit crimes. While we cannot force people to accept services, we do hold those who commit crimes accountable, with the limited resources available to us.

We take enforcement action when all other alternatives through our Navigator have failed. Of course, we could assist more homeless and respond more rapidly to illegal camps if additional resources were available to us amid ever-changing state mandates and takeaways that diminish local control over local issues like addressing homelessness and public safety.

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While we are proud of our successes through the Navigator program, Code Enforcement, and Problem Oriented Policing units in reducing homelessness in our City, we must also maintain critical public safety services including emergency response times, crime prevention, and local school safety — regardless of what actions the state or federal government takes.

In the meantime, I proudly stand with the local men and women of our Citrus Heights Police Department who bravely serve and maintain outstanding public safety for Citrus Heights residents and businesses.

Ronald Lawrence serves as police chief for the City of Citrus Heights, a position he has been in since 2016.

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