The Elk Grove City Council on June 8 adopted an ordinance to the city’s municipal code pertaining to unlawful camping within city limits.

Camping is generally defined as maintaining a campsite at a facility for more than 24 hours.

Known as Chapter 9.38, the ordinance was developed with two main drivers: Providing housing resources to the unhoused and establishing enforcement mechanisms for those who decide to not comply with the ordinance.

This ordinance was prepared for the council’s consideration by the city’s staff, in consultation with Elk Grove’s homeless ad hoc committee, which is headed by Council Members Pat Hume and Stephanie Nguyen.

Nguyen stressed the need for the city to have an unlawful camping ordinance.

“As Council Member Pat Hume said, the encampment process is getting out of hand in other cities, and we need to take action,” she said.

“We need to be leaders here in this city to make sure that the encampments are not going to happen in so many different pockets throughout the entire city here, as we’re seeing in so many areas.”

The council’s adoption of this ordinance creates regulations against camping on public property within 500 feet of playgrounds and daycare, school and youth facilities; and camping in a greater area than 150 square feet.

Also prohibited through the ordinance are camps that impair access to public facilities and right-of-ways, and encampments – which are considered four or more people camping within a 50-foot area.

Camping areas will also be required to be kept clean and void of garbage, debris and waste.

The ordinance provides protection to private property owners, in that no camp can be located on a private property without the owner’s consent.

Any camps located on private property by permission must still abide by regulations that camps not be a nuisance.

It is also required that all camping structures be safe, noted Elk Grove City Attorney Jonathan Hobbs during his presentation to the council.

“Unsafe structures will be subject to abatement,” he said.

The ordinance includes penalties for violations. According to a city staff report, no penalties must be presented without first providing the violator with information about temporary and permanent housing services that are available in Elk Grove.

After that information is presented to a violator, the city can issue a 72-hour notice for a temporary seizure of personal property. The city will hold personal property for retrieval for 90 days, at which time the city will dispose of that property.

Hobbs noted that the city is not required to house personal items that are illegal or are considered a safety hazard.

“Those (items) can be disposed of immediately,” he said.

Although the ordinance was proposed to the council with a possible fine of $100 per day for violators, the council ultimately decided to remove that part of the ordinance.

Council Member Kevin Spease explained his concern with fining violators of this ordinance.

“My concern is that perhaps in an instance where we levy a fine on someone, we may very well be making them less eligible to get housing somewhere else, because they’ve got a couple fines stacked on them,” he said.

Vice Mayor Darren Suen mentioned the challenges that come with fining people who cannot afford the $100 fine.

“The fee, I think is somewhat problematic, because a lot of these individuals don’t have money, and then if they don’t pay, then what would the city do at that point to collect?” he said. “A lot of them, if you don’t have an address, how do you even serve them? So, there’s all kinds of things of why the $100 fee to me also is problematic.”

The council later debated a consideration to approve the ordinance, without the $100 fine, with the agreement that they return to the discussion next January on whether to include that fine.

Nguyen responded to that suggestion.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “Why are we delaying (that discussion)? If you’re not going to fine them now, we’re going to have the same discussion again.”

Elk Grove Mayor Bobbie Singh-Allen responded to Nguyen’s comment with the suggestion to remove the proposal to include a fine for violators, and eliminate the plan to discuss the issue regarding the fine in January.

“Let’s remove it, because we can always bring back an amendment,” she said.

City rep says 100-150 homeless live in EG at any given time

In a report to the council, Alicia Tutt, the city’s housing and grant specialist, told the council that at any given time, Elk Grove has about 100-150 people who are experiencing homelessness.

“Certainly, there’s a lot more over the course of the year; however, some of those resolve as they find other options,” she said.

Tutt noted that this homeless population is staying in a mix of outdoor locations, including in tents and cars.

“We see quite a few in vehicles, and specifically families,” she said. “That’s where we see our families staying. We do not see them in campsites.”

As for why homeless people choose to stay in Elk Grove, Tutt mentioned that they cite having connections to the community.

“So, maybe their last residence was in Elk Grove, they have family or friends, their children attend school here,” she said. “They may have a family member here who offers them dinner and the ability to shower in their home, but they’re not actually able to stay overnight there.”

Tutt added that other homeless people in Elk Grove have said that due to safety reasons they prefer to stay in this city instead of areas such as downtown Sacramento.

As for what is driving homelessness, Tutt noted the increasing scarcity of housing availability.

“Vacancy is low and there are about 15 to 20 applications for every one unit that becomes available – which makes it hard to compete, especially for those with prior evictions or bad credit,” she said.

With rising property values, many small landlords are selling their properties, Tutt said.

“So, the tenant that may have lived on a property for 10 years is now been given a 60 days notice to find new housing, which is not often enough time,” she said.

She also mentioned that the average application fee for an apartment is $50 per adult.

“With the competition being so great, many people are having to submit many applications for units that become available,” Tutt said. “And we have seen one woman who has spent over $8,000 just in application fees, and still been unable to find housing.”

Another significant challenge that people face is a 30% increase in rental costs, compared to the cost of rents prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tutt summarized that portion of her report to the council.

“Overall, available and affordable housing is a key driver to homelessness,” she said.