Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sacramento attorney, homeless advocate, is a hero to some, a thorn to others + Comment

Sacramento attorney, homeless advocate, is a hero to some, a thorn to others Published Tuesday, Sep. 22, 2009

Randall Benton /

Sacramento attorney Mark Merin, shown Sunday on his property at 13th and C streets, has been both lionized and resented for allowing homeless persons to camp on his midtown lot, but managed to win a promise from the city to find a homeless campground in exchange for his lot being vacated.

Fighting for the rights of poor people has made Mark Merin a wealthy man.

"I'm set for life," said Merin, who has defended the civil rights of jail inmates, abortion providers and alleged gang bangers, among others, during a legal career that has spanned nearly four decades. "I can do things without any thought of compensation."

Scores of homeless men and women in Sacramento, whose cases Merin has championed in court and in the press in recent weeks, consider him a savior. Others, including city leaders and neighborhood groups, call him strident and arrogant.

"He's more Don Quixote than Mother Teresa," said Bruce Monighan, a Sacramento architect whose Alkali Flat neighborhood has been affected by Merin's latest battle.

Merin has tilted at plenty of windmills in his career, and frequently he has slaughtered the enemy.

His latest foe is the city of Sacramento.

Last month, Merin unleashed a torrent of controversy when he opened a vacant lot that he owns at 13th and C streets to a group of homeless campers. The site became the epicenter of the capital city's struggle over what to do about homelessness.

Almost every day last week, police rousted campers from the lot, seizing their tents and sleeping bags and issuing citations for illegal camping. Each day, at the urging of Merin and advocacy groups including Francis House and Loaves & Fishes, the homeless campers came back.

The city took Merin to court to force the campers out, as did an elderly man who lives adjacent to the site and claimed it was disrupting his life and health. Still, the campers remained.

The aim was to force the city to establish a legal "safe ground" with basic services such as running

water and garbage pickup.

The tactic worked. This weekend, city leaders brokered a deal with the homeless: If the campers agreed to move off Merin's lot, Mayor Kevin Johnson would push for a legalized homeless campground in a nearby industrial area and the city would drop its lawsuit.

It is the kind of fight that Merin relishes.

"People can come after me, but they can't force me to abandon my principles," he said, sitting in a conference room in the midtown law office that he shares with his wife of 33 years, Cathleen Williams.

"I'm not going to give up."

No one who knows Merin doubts it.

"He gets under my skin," said City Councilman Steve Cohn, who calls the renegade camp an "outrageous" stunt. "He can be pretty smug. But I certainly take him seriously as a lawyer. He knows what he's doing, and he plays hardball."

Merin, who grew up in Philadelphia, started thinking about a career in civil rights law while a student at the University of Chicago School of Law in the late 1960s. He joined Students for a Democratic Society, opposed the Vietnam War and followed the trial of the Chicago Seven.

After earning his law degree and a master's degree in urban and poverty law, he worked a couple years for a San Francisco litigation firm. He came to Sacramento in 1975 to work for the Fair Political Practices Commission, then returned to private practice.

He and his partners, including Cathleen Williams, earned a meager income at first representing American Indian groups, nonprofit health clinics, and prisoner and minority organizations. They did criminal defense work to cover the rent, and started filing civil rights cases. When they won, they were awarded attorney fees.

Various partners came and went as the years passed, but Merin kept going.

Over the years his clients have included abortion providers whose offices were the targets of protesters, jail inmates who claimed they were abused by deputies, and citizens who said they were beaten by police officers. He won a small victory earlier this year when Sacramento County agreed to pay $488,000 to partially resolve his class-action suit on behalf of homeless people who had their property destroyed by authorities.

In 2004, Merin won the largest settlement in the history of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, $15 million, to resolve lawsuits over strip searches at the county jail. He pocketed $3 million. Three years later, he got $1.5 million when the county settled a similar class-action suit over strip searches at its youth detention facility.

Those settlements and others have given Merin a comfortable life, and the freedom to pick and choose cases in which "the principles outweigh the personal gains," he said.

At 65, he is past the age when most people retire, but he still loves to compete. "I'm a civil rights lawyer, so I shouldn't ever lose," he said. "In court, I should be on the right side every time."

Wiry and athletic, Merin lives in a stately 1905 house filled with folk art, notable paintings and photographs, and stained-glass windows he creates by hand. Alkali Flat has been Merin's home for 35 years, and he and Williams raised two children, Noah and Maia, in the neighborhood. His street is just a few blocks from the C Street property where he allowed the homeless to camp.

Homeless people have always been part of the landscape, he said. They occasionally sleep on his porch and store their belongings behind his bushes. Merin said he accommodates those who need a meal or a bathroom.

As the neighborhood has become gentrified, Merin said, with newcomers opening businesses and buying lofts, hostility toward the homeless has increased. "People have become outraged that poor people have a right to live here," he said.

The push for a "safe ground" began in earnest this spring when the city forced more than 100 homeless people to leave a sprawling encampment along the American River Parkway on vacant property owned by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. Merin said a group of men and women asked if they could camp on his property at 13th and C, and "I thought they could get a little respite until the city could find a better place for them."

Others see more sinister motives.

Merin and Pedro Hernandez, a retiree whose house is adjacent to the camp, recently tangled over a strip of land between their two properties. The case was settled last year. Some think Merin is seeking revenge.

"He's letting 40 bums camp in my client's backyard, just six months after the settlement," said Aldon Bolanos, who represents Hernandez. "Coincidence? I don't think so."

Merin insists his only motive is to ease the plight of the homeless. "People die on the streets," he said. "To ignore this is unconscionable."

Shelter beds will be harder to find this winter, Merin said, as government budget cuts take a toll on services. Homeless advocates estimate that 1,200 to 1,400 people are without permanent housing in Sacramento on any given night.

For weeks, before heading to his office on P Street, Merin would visit the C Street encampment. On a recent day, only a few tents remained and all was quiet, as most of the campers were eating breakfast or showering at the nearby Loaves & Fishes homeless complex. A city police vehicle sat idle at the camp's entrance when Merin approached, wearing a beige suit and cowboy boots.

"Everything OK?" Merin asked Tracie Bailey, a formerly homeless woman who has become a "safe ground" advocate. "We're blessed!" Bailey answered.

"Mark is the only person on Earth helping the homeless find a place to stay," she said later. "God gave us this man to help us help ourselves."

Some homeowners and business owners in the area have a different perspective. They say Merin's crusade is setting back progress in the neighborhood, reducing property values, drawing crime and trash and impinging on their quality of life.

Steve Little lives in the area and is active in the neighborhood association. His home is on the market and he said "it has not had one single showing since this issue emerged."

Little said he and others resent Merin's "lecturing" about the need to care for the homeless while the larger neighborhood suffers.

Monighan, the Alkali Flat architect, calls Merin "a man of conscience and morality" who is driven "to certain positions that may not be of benefit to all."

"My take is that he feels that his mission justifies any discomfort, loss or suffering to the residents of the neighborhood," Monighan said.

Though his C Street encampment, for now, has shut down, Merin said the battle is far from over.

"We're committed to developing safe ground for all homeless people in Sacramento," he said. "We're going to see this fight through."



Comment: This Wednesday night the former Safeground by !3th & 'C' Street is empty and quiet now.

I live about a block away at Globe Mills. Public awareness in Sacramento has been increased about our local domestic homeless refugees, consciousness has been raised and no one should be shallow or stupid about where we need basic HUMANE SERVICES for HUMAN BEINGS!

Mather Community Campus and the Independent Living Readiness Program transitional housing programs are in jeopardy of having their funding cut off. Our local shelters are full and shrinking. Many homeless families are crowding into cramped liviing quarters with family and friends, many are living in their vehicles or left out in the streets now.

We got quiet tragedies going on and troubles here brewing in good ol' River City!!!

The good Dr. Karl Jung once said something about modern society in general being neurotic. I wonder if the present set of global leaders are not in need ot psychotherapy and a connected reality check. Our hard working Presidnt Obama gave a great speech at the UN today. We got folks around here where I live begging for chump change, predator parasites in the streets and millions of dollars being thrown into the black hole of the Middle East in Iraq and Afghan. Thank God, life goes on within us and surely goes on without us.

We need to work on our local community levels, continue to raise consciousness, create viable social organization and make sure to never ever give up in our good fight for true equal justice and social democracy. We learn from our experiences, our potential is infinite and our dreams endure!

Keep your heart strong, your mind clear and your body healhty!

Education for Liberation!Venceremos Unidos!

Peter S. Lopez ~aka Peta

Sacramento, California, Aztlan

Yahoo Email:


Come Together! Join Up! Seize theTime!


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