Organizers of Sacramento's first "nomadic" winter shelter program declared it a success Tuesday and began soliciting donations and volunteers for next year.
Many of those who slept and ate in churches during cold winter months will retreat to the outdoors, joining scattered tent communities, stirring complaints and trying to dodge citations from police and park rangers.
Despite more than a year of protests, appeals and negotiations, the effort to establish a legal place for homeless people to sleep in Sacramento remains mired in controversy.
The nonprofit group known as SafeGround Sacramento continues to talk with city leaders about establishing a homeless community that includes common areas with basic services, said Executive Director Steve Watters. But where that community might be is an open question.
"We need to find a place that is safe and politically acceptable," said Watters. "That's the reality of the process, and it's not easy. But I do feel we've got some really earnest work going on."
Most of the first six locations presented to a study group led by Assistant City Manager Cassandra Jennings have been rejected for safety or other reasons, he said. New sites are being considered.
Mayor Kevin Johnson said Tuesday that he remains committed to establishing a SafeGround community in Sacramento and is frustrated that hasn't happened. But council members appear wary of advocating for a project that likely would draw the ire of their constituents if it landed in their backyards.
Watters has been meeting individually with council members, he said, and next week will take part in a workshop with Jennings' group.
Seven to nine potential SafeGround sites will be on the table, he said. But the council will have the final vote on any such project, and most members of the panel so far have been circumspect.
Councilman Jay Schenirer said he would back a SafeGround community in his district, which covers Curtis Park, Oak Park and a dozen other neighborhoods, if the project included services and programs designed to help lift people out of homelessness.
"I have told SafeGround, 'Look in my district,' " Schenirer said. "If we find a piece of property that meets the criteria, I would be more than willing to work with the neighborhood to make it happen."
Watters declined to release a list of potential sites for the project but said that at least one is in Schenirer's district.
SafeGround envisions a community that would serve 40 to 80 people in small cabins. It would be governed from within and prohibit drugs, alcohol and violence.
Once a site is established, organizers estimate it would take 18 months to launch the community. Until then, they want the city to temporarily provide a piece of land near the American River parkway where people can sleep without police interference.
For now, Watters said, SafeGround campers remain in defiance of the city's ordinance against putting down their sleeping bags for more than 24 hours in unauthorized places, typically along the parkway. Law enforcement officers routinely roust them from their campsites, forcing them to regularly relocate.
"Now that winter shelter is closed, we're seeing an increase in demand" to join the SafeGround community, he said. But SafeGround is reluctant to create a large tent city along the American River for fear of fueling yet another public outcry, he said.
"We would like to get people off of the river as soon as possible, find a piece of vacant property, maybe an abandoned warehouse or some other free-standing structure" to serve as a temporary home, said Watters. "The weather this winter played havoc with our tents and our people. There needs to be a sense of urgency about this."
On Tuesday, the mayor, county Supervisors Phil Serna and Roberta MacGlashan and other dignitaries celebrated the success of the area's first nomadic winter sanctuary program.
It evolved after the county slashed funding for a seasonal shelter at Cal Expo. Instead of sleeping in the fairgrounds building, the homeless took buses to a rotating list of 24 houses of worship for supper and a place to spend the night.
The program served 550 people and hosted 10,900 nights of shelter, said Christie Holderegger of Volunteers of America, which led the program along with the mayor's Sacramento Steps Forward group. The tab was $97,000, less than a third of what it would have been at Cal Expo, she said.
Private donors, businesses and civic organizations funded the program.