October 20, 2021

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Lawsuit could block homeless shelter plan in Sacramento CA

A new lawsuit threatens to halt a major Sacramento plan to address the homeless crisis.

The lawsuit — filed Wednesday in Sacramento Superior Court by a group called the Coalition for Compassion and city resident Michael Malinowski — alleges the new plan skirted an environmental review. It also alleges the plan would place homeless individuals at risk of air pollution by placing them under the W-X freeway.

The city’s $100 million Comprehensive Siting Plan to Address Homelessness, approved by the City Council last month, contains 20 sites where the city plans to open shelters, tiny homes and Safe Ground sanctioned encampments. Once they open, the sites will be able to serve 2,209 people at a time. Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who proposed the idea, called it “the most aggressive plan in the history of the city.”

“Our community has spoken loud and clear that unsheltered homelessness is the most urgent challenge we face as a city,” Steinberg said in a statement in response to the lawsuit. “We cannot let opposition to any form of needed progress deter us from doing what we know is necessary and right to alleviate human suffering and provide a clean and safe city to our residents and businesses.”

The city’s plan includes opening 200 new tiny homes for 400 people at five locations under the W-X freeway between 18th and 24th streets.

“A major component of the project involves relocating many hundreds of unhoused individuals and congregating them under the W-X freeway, where they will be exposed to extremely loud noises and deadly emissions and particulates that can cause substantial impacts on their health and well-being,” the lawsuit said.

A letter from the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District to the city, attached to the lawsuit, says that residential uses for sensitive populations such as children, the elderly and those with pre-existing chronic conditions should not be sited within 500 feet of a roadway with 100,000 vehicles per day. Average daily traffic on Highway 50 at 15th Street is 246,000 to 258,000, it said.

“Vehicle traffic generates fine particulate matter, including metallic constituents, which is strongly associated with asthma, blood pressure increases, cognitive decline, stroke, and death from heart attack,” the letter read.

The letter recommended the city install enhanced indoor air filtration and plant a vegetative barrier with year-round tree foliage.

Exposure to lead and other carcinogens caused a judge in May to order Los Angeles to move thousands of homeless people living near freeways into shelters and housing.

The new sites in the Sacramento plan will not be the first time the city places homeless near the freeway. Earlier this year, the city opened a Safe Ground site for sanctioned tent and vehicle camping at Sixth and W streets. Next week, the city is opening a 100-bed shelter near X street and Alhambra Boulevard.

Adding the new tiny homes under the freeway would create an over-concentration along the W-X corridor, said Malinowski, owner of Applied Architecture Inc., located at 25th and X streets.

“You effectively create a skid row,” Malinowski said. “I have no objection to taking all measures necessary to try to address this (homeless) problem. But it should be, in my opinion, a full gamut of measures, not just repeating the same measures, which have not been able to solve the problem, over and over.”

Malinowski said transients have defecated on his property, have stolen items from his business and attempted to break in. He thinks those issues could worsen when the tiny homes are opened.

The lawsuit claims the city erroneously determined the new sites in the plan were exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act.

A city staff report from the meeting where the council approved the plan stated: “…it can be seen with certainty that there is no possibility that the plan might have a significant effect on the environment.”

The city declined comment on the lawsuit because it has not yet been served with it, city spokesman Tim Swanson said.

The lawsuit asks a judge to stop the city from taking action to carry out the projects, to vacate approvals already granted, and to stop it from granting permits for the projects until the city complies with CEQA.

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Theresa Clift covers Sacramento City Hall. Before joining The Bee in 2018, she covered local government at newspapers in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from Central Michigan University.