Is Redding Cruel and Unusual?

Meet “Rick,” a paralyzed man rousted by Redding’s latest homeless sweep.

On Tuesday, the Redding City Council is set to pass a revised anti-homeless camping ordinance the city claims will shield it from a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decision last September. The San Francisco-headquartered court found such laws violate the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The appeals court decision rocked big- and medium-sized cities with similar laws struggling with growing homeless populations across the western United States, from Seattle to Denver to Los Angeles.

In Redding, the city wisely chose to stop enforcing its anti-camping ordinance. The fact that the Ninth District’s decision came between the Carr and Camp Fires, in which tens of thousands of northern Californians lost their housing, instantly rendering them homeless, may have helped with that decision.

But despite these twin natural disasters, the anti-homeless sentiment that has made Shasta County infamous persists. The Redding City Council has answered its call with a revised anti-homeless camping ordinance that it claims is not as cruel and unusual as its existing law.

If the revised ordinance goes into effect next month as planned, law enforcement officers will begin asking homeless campers on public property a simple question.

Why aren’t they staying at the Good News Rescue Mission?

If the homeless person gives the wrong answer, he or she could be cited for violating the camping ordinance, because the Mission allegedly never exceeds its capacity. There’s always “available shelter” at the Mission, the city claims.

In fact, both Good News Rescue Mission and the Boise Rescue Mission are operated by the same parent organization, the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions.

As we shall see, that’s part of the same rationale that led to the Ninth Circuit’s decision in the first place.

Screen capture of the Good News Rescue Mission’s homepage.

In its explanation of the revisions, the city of Redding attempts, unsuccessfully in my opinion, to address two issues raised in Martin v. City of Boise, the Ninth Circuit decision that found Boise’s anti-homeless camping ordinance was unconstitutional.

The first issue concerns homeless individuals who’ve exceeded the Mission’s 30-day stay limit or who are for some other reason unable to stay at the Mission. The second concerns individuals who decline the shelter’s faith-based services, which are steeped in Christianity, for personal reasons.

Boise and Redding make for an interesting comparison. At 223,000 people, the capitol city of Idaho is roughly two-and-a-half times Redding’s 91,000 citizens. But according to the most recent point-in-time homeless surveys, each city has at least 750 homeless individuals living in its respective county. Boise has three faith-based homeless shelters compared to Redding’s one, the Good News Rescue Mission.

In 2010, in response to a lawsuit filed on behalf of a half-dozen homeless individuals, Boise changed its anti-homeless camping policy. Homeless campers were no longer to be cited if the city’s three shelters were at full capacity and there was no other alternative to sleeping on the streets.

However, this measure had very little effect on enforcement of the ordinance. Boise relied on the shelters to self-report when they were full. One of the shelters reported it was full nearly 50 percent of the time. But the other two shelters, operated by Boise Rescue Mission, claimed they’re never at full capacity, because they have internal policies to never turn anyone away.

Therefore, because there was allegedly always space at those two shelters—a claim the Ninth Circuit found dubious—Boise continued citing homeless campers, and continues to do so, despite the court’s ruling, which the city has appealed.

Just as Redding’s revised camping ordinance resembles the city of Boise’s, the Good News Rescue Mission’s admission policies resemble the Boise Rescue Mission’s. Like Boise, Redding relies on the Mission to self-report when it is full, and like the Boise Rescue Mission, the Good News Rescue Mission has never reported that it was over capacity—or so Redding claims.

So, what exactly is the Good News Rescue Mission’s capacity? The figure is strangely missing from both the city’s revised ordinance and reportage on the Redding City Council’s actions. According to the Mission’s website, it’s sheltering up to 200 short-term and long-term clients at any give time. How many more can it shelter? 100? 200? 750? It’s never stated.

I put in a request with the Good News Rescue Mission business office to interview executive director Jonathan Anderson on the subject of the revised anti-camping ordinance. So far I haven’t heard back.

At the Redding City Council meeting last month, city attorney Barry DeWalt repeated the claim that the Mission never reaches full capacity.

But like Boise Rescue Mission, the Good News Rescue Mission has a “30-day-in, 30-day-out policy,” meaning residents must leave at the end of 30 days and wait another 30 days before they’re eligible to stay there again. This measure itself is designed to prevent the shelter from becoming overcrowded.

While DeWalt acknowledged that fact, he noted individuals can extend their stay at the Mission beyond 30 days by participating in certain non-religious programs. Still, it’s highly questionable that the Mission is capable of sheltering Shasta County’s entire homeless population.

For starters, not everyone who stays at the Mission qualifies for an extension—some don’t make it past the first 30 days due to mental health or substance abuse issues. Some aren’t welcome back because they’ve broken the rules, others have so many life issues they find living in a tent in Parkview Riverfront Park or the Henderson Open Space more tolerable than life at the Mission.

Participants in the Mission’s faith-based drug and alcohol program can stay as long as 13 months, and many former addicts and alcoholics have gotten a leg-up from the program. But statically, as with most recovery programs, faith-based or secular, many more drop out than recover. Some of those who fail also wind up living in a tent down by the river.

While the Mission doesn’t require religious observance to shelter there or participate in its extension program, by all accounts the Christian religion is omnipresent at the facility. Go to the Mission’s website—as any homeless person with a cell phone can and would—and you’ll find Christianity front and center, including nine video testimonials in which Mission residents credit God for their recoveries.

At the December council meeting, DeWalt implied that homeless campers can’t refuse to go to the Good News Rescue Mission on religious grounds, because the Mission doesn’t require religious observance for some of its basic and extended shelter services.

In Martin v. City of Boise, the city of Boise made the same claim in regard to the two shelters operated by Boise Recovery Mission. The Ninth Circuit, citing previous legal precedent, found the city’s claim that the two shelters were never at full capacity questionable and granted legal standing to two of the homeless plaintiffs, Robert Martin and Robert Anderson, based on their objection to faith-based services:

“Although the City argues strenuously that the Emergency Services Program is secular, Anderson testified to the contrary; he stated that he was once required to attend chapel before being permitted to eat dinner at the River of Life shelter. Both Martin and Anderson have objected to the overall religious atmosphere of the River of Life shelter, including the Christian messaging on the shelter’s intake form and the Christian iconography on the shelter walls.”

What happens if a homeless camper tells RPD they refuse to go to the Mission based on religious grounds? The Ninth Circuit makes pretty clear what should happen:

“A city cannot, via the threat of prosecution, coerce an individual to attend religion-based treatment programs consistently with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

Nevertheless, the biggest chunk of new language the city is adding to its homeless ordinance to “bulletproof” it from possible constitutional challenges contains the exact same sort of coercion (my italics):

“The term ‘available shelter’ is a public or private shelter, with an available overnight space, open to an individual or family unit experiencing homelessness, at no charge. A shelter shall not be considered available when the individual cannot occupy said space due to overcapacity, exhaustion of stay limitations, or when religious observance is required as a condition of gaining shelter.”

I strongly suspect that any homeless person who spends time at the Goodwill Rescue Mission and finds the religious atmosphere there objectionable has the 1st Amendment right to decline the Mission’s services, whether or not those services require “religious observance.”

In an effort to make every last square inch of public property within city limits uninhabitable by the homeless, the city added “parking structures” and “open spaces” to an already lengthy list of areas where camping is prohibited.

If the ordinance goes into effect next month, local law enforcement will begin interrogating anyone found camping on streets, easements, parks, parking structures, dump sites, open spaces, creekbeds, electric utility substations, parking lots and corporation yards.

“Why aren’t you at the Mission?” will be one of the first questions asked.

City of Redding removing homeless refuse and property from Parkview Riverfront Park last Tuesday.

In fact, local law enforcement have partially rolled out the new policy already. Last Tuesday, RPD’s Community Clean-Up Team, Shasta County Social Services and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife descended upon the homeless encampment near Parkview Riverfront Park at 8 a.m. in the driving rain.

Longtime local homeless advocate Chis Solberg videoed the encounter and later sent it to me. In the video, trucks and trailers were hauling away refuse from the homeless camp as well as personal belongings, at the direction of Fish and Wildlife but under the watchful eye of the RPD.

In a second video sent to me by Solberg, a straight-faced Fish and Wildlife official explains to Solberg that this isn’t an anti-homeless action.

“It’s basically chemicals that are ending up in our watershed,” the hapless official stated. “As a taxpayer and a supporter of the Constitution, I’m sure you can agree that chemicals, such as household chemicals, feces, illicit drugs, these are all impacting our watershed. We have some of the cleanest water in the world and my job is to secure that.”

Solberg later sent another video from the scene featuring a homeless woman named “Jessie” who complained that Fish and Game officials rudely rousted her from her tent. She said her only place to stay, a small trailer near Happy Valley, had been destroyed in the Carr Fire. Jessie seemed more concerned about “Rick,” her immediate neighbor in the small village of a dozen or so tents.

Jessie claimed someone from Fish and Wildlife ordered Rick, who’s in a wheelchair and can’t walk, to crawl out of his tent that morning. Most of Rick’s property was hauled away. In yet another video sent to me by Solberg, Rick corroborated Jessie’s story.

Rick explained to Solberg that he suffered a stroke in 2015, caused by an aneurysm that left him paralyzed. He’s been homeless ever since. Rick wasn’t certain which public agency the official who questioned him was from, but the official asked why he wasn’t staying at the Mission.

Rick told the official he had just recently begun his 30-day-out from the Mission and was unable to stay there. The official told Rick he could apply for an extension at the Mission. Rick replied that he’d never heard of the extension. According to Rick, the official called him a liar.

How less “cruel and unusual” this is than Redding’s previous ordinance I leave for the reader to ponder.

That’s just a taste of tensions to come when local law enforcement officials begin asking the homeless why they aren’t staying at the Mission. If someone claims they can’t go there because they’re on their 30-day-out or some other reason, law enforcement will attempt to confirm the story with the Mission. If the story doesn’t check out, they’ll be cited for breaking the homeless camping ordinance, a misdemeanor.

If the homeless camper’s story checks out, law enforcement is legally prohibited from citing that person for homeless camping by the Ninth Circuit’s decision. There’s no available shelter for him or her to stay. The same almost certainly applies to homeless campers who raise religious objections to staying at the Mission, despite the city’s claim that such objections are moot.

We’re about to see how this will all play out legally, because the Redding City Council will almost undoubtedly approve implementing the revised anti-homeless camping ordinance on Tuesday.

Redding’s effort to rid the city’s public spaces of homeless people gained momentum last year, when a fence was erected to keep the homeless out of South City Park, and will soon pick up speed as the city’s parks and open spaces are closed from dusk till dawn.

Solberg, who serves as a volunteer witness for Legal Services of Northern California and the Washington, D.C.-based National Center On Homelessness and Poverty, said both agencies are following Redding’s moves closely.

A self-proclaimed born-again Christian, Solberg is a former Loaves and Fishes director and once volunteered at the Mission. During his past 10 years as a homeless advocate, he’s encountered many homeless people who’ve left the Mission because they were unable to comply with the rules and/or they find it excessively religious.

He disputes the claim the Mission has never exceeded its capacity, citing past cold snaps where homeless people were packed to the rafters. He wonders how the Mission will cope with the increasing number of people rendered homeless by the Carr and Camp fires in the northern California region.

“The bottom line is that the Mission cannot handle all the homeless people in these counties,” he said.

For now, the Ninth Circuit has the last word. Citing legal precedent that “the Eighth Amendment prohibits the state from punishing an involuntary act or condition if it is the unavoidable consequence of one’s status or being,” the court found in favor of the homeless plaintiffs in Boise.

“As a result, just as the state may not criminalize the state of being ‘homeless in public places,’ the state may not ‘criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless’ — namely sitting, lying, or sleeping on the streets,” the Ninth Circuit concluded.

How closely the city of Redding has read the fine print remains to be seen.

R.V. Scheide

R.V. Scheide is an award-winning journalist who has covered news, politics, music, arts and culture in Northern California for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in the Tenderloin Times, Sacramento News & Review, Reno News & Review, Chico News & Review, North Bay Bohemian, San Jose Metro, SF Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, Alternet, Boston Phoenix, Creative Loafing and Counterpunch, among many other publications. His honors include winning the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s Freedom of Information Act and best columnist awards as well as best commentary from the Society of Professional Journalists, California chapter. Mr. Scheide welcomes your comments and story tips. Contact him at RVScheide@anewscafe.com..

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