moving into a vacant home

As California’s mandatory “stay at home” order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus approaches the two-week mark, but with no new shelter beds yet available in Sacramento, three of the city’s homeless resorted to a drastic measure over the weekend: moving into a vacant house.

Sacramento police Sunday removed three homeless adults who had been living in a vacant Land Park home. The incident ended peacefully, as police detained the three adults in squad cars, cited them for trespassing and released them, while a group of activists watched and took videos.

But it could be a sign that a movement is brewing in Sacramento mirroring those in Oakland and Los Angeles, where homeless have moved into vacant corporate or publicly-owned houses, gaining national attention. Activists in Sacramento said more homeless individuals may seek shelter in vacant properties to avoid exposure to the coronavirus.

“These people will probably be going right back there and this time it’s gonna be a community activity event and a political statement and not just an act of a few desperate people,” said civil rights attorney Mark Merin. “I think what we’re gonna see here is an escalation of a move to take over abandoned dwellings, especially those that are corporate-owned as this one was.”

Crystal Sanchez, an activist and president of the Sacramento Homeless Union, said she believes more homeless people will move into corporate or publicly-owned vacant houses in the city as the pandemic continues.

“Yes, they will move into a safe unused space,” Sanchez said. “At a time when precaution, protection and safety is key, we must do what we have to to survive this pandemic. This has become a moral obligation, so if that means breaking legal law, we must do what we need to.”

Homeless removed by police

Asantewaa Boykin, an activist with the Anti-Police Terror Project, took a 23-minute video Sunday afternoon as police removed the homeless and posted it to Facebook. On the video, officers can be seen carrying items outside the house, placing someone in handcuffs and placing the individual in a squad car.

Police were called because people were trying to work on the inside of the house, Sgt. Will Conner can be heard saying on the video to a group of people who showed up to support the homeless.

“There were people inside and they were not able to do the work,” Conner told the group. “Neighbors are calling as well as the people responsible for this building so they can do work inside.”

According to police, an investigation found the three people had forced their way into the residence through a side door and were trespassing, police spokesman Officer Karl Chan said.

Asked where the people should go, Conner said, “I don’t recommend they break into somebody’s house.”

He continued, “You understand as well as I do that there are not a lot of shelter beds and because there are not a lot of shelter beds, I can’t say that I can have somebody put up at in a certain place at a certain time. There are certainly services that are available and we’ll certainly explore that as we get to that point.”

Two women and a man had been staying in the house for a couple days, said Mackenzie Wilson of the Sacramento Tenants Union, who was at the scene. They are now back to living on the streets near the W/X corridor, Wilson said.

Sacramento County issued a mandatory “shelter in place” order March 18 to slow the spread of the coronavirus. City and county officials last week announced they are creating 663 new beds in shelters, hotels, state trailers and apartments to help the county’s estimated more than 5,000 homeless people get indoors during the pandemic. The beds have not yet opened, however.

The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors plans to consider whether to approve leases for 221 rooms in three hotels at its meeting at 10 a.m. Wednesday, said Janna Haynes, a county spokeswoman. The county has not yet announced a process where homeless can request to receive one of the new beds, but plans to do so this week, Haynes said.

Local officials have also said they expect state emergency trailers to arrive this week, to be placed at Cal Expo, but have not yet announced details.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg has said local officials are working urgently to get the homeless indoors and that he wants to increase the number of new coronavirus response beds to 1,800 or 2,000.

Before the virus struck, city officials approved plans to open large homeless shelters with services under the W/X freeway and in Meadowview, as well as cabins in north Sacramento, though it’s unclear when those will open.

Corporate ownership

The home, at 2746 Muir Way in North Land Park, is owned by Wedgewood Inc., the same company that owned a vacant house in Oakland four homeless mothers moved into last year. When sheriff’s deputies in riot gear and armored vehicles removed the mothers in January, it attracted national headlines.

In the end, the company agreed to offer all their Oakland properties to nonprofits, community land trusts or the city for first refusal before putting them on the market.

Sacramento Councilwoman-elect Katie Valenzuela, who will represent Land Park, said she hopes the incident Sunday will prompt local officials in Sacramento to start conversations with Wedgewood to see if they could get a similar agreement here.

“I think Oakland gave us a blueprint we could easily follow,” said Valenzuela, who sits on the board of the Sacramento Community Land Trust. Under the “land trust” model, homeowners agree to sell homes to lower-income families at a pre-determined price, instead of listing them on the open market.

A representative of Redondo Beach-based Wedgewood Inc. verified the company owns the Land Park house and said it is currently undergoing renovations.

The company owned 30 homes in Sacramento County in 2018, according to a county database. It owns about 50 in Oakland, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

“I think Sacramento has not learned from the situation in Oakland and that desperate times need desperate measures,” Merin said. “For people who are on the streets and desperate, to take over a home that’s been abandoned is only reasonable sense.”

After the Moms4Housing outcome in Oakland, lawmakers proposed a state law that would fine corporations that let homes sit vacant for more than three months. Valenzuela said she supports that bill and urged Sacramento officials to consider a local version.

Valenzuela said there is a big difference between a corporate or publicly-owned house being used for this purpose compared to a privately-owned home.

“This isn’t me moving into your house when you’re on vacation or me taking over the home you’re living in, this is a campaign against corporate-owned properties, which is a very different conversation than someone who just has a rental and is having trouble finding someone to rent it to right now,” Valenzuela said.