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    Earannando Turner was one of a group of campers at North 10th Street in Sacramento Thursday.


    Andrew Hankins warms himself by a fire at a 140-tent camp at the end of North 10th Street in Sacramento last Thursday.

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American River camp extends Sacramento debate on 'safe ground'

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011 - 9:46 am

For nearly three years, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson has sought to create a city-sanctioned encampment for a small but vocal band of the homeless.

And yet there they were last week, two dozen homeless people, cleaning their tents and tending to stoves at an illegal campground tucked between a row of warehouses and the American River north of downtown.

The creation of a homeless "safe ground" has stymied Johnson more than any other issue he has supported since taking office three years ago. Johnson regularly expresses frustration over the lack of progress, and until recently he was the only elected official at City Hall who supported the idea.

The mayor told reporters last week he "felt very strongly there is evidence to study (a safe ground) as one small opportunity" to address homelessness.

"I can't see any reason why we wouldn't want to explore that as a possible option," he said.

City code prohibits overnight camping in the city, the key roadblock to an encampment.

Most city elected officials, as well as many businesses and neighborhood groups, are wary of supporting a camp, worried that it might attract more homeless people to Sacramento. There is also a perception that some involved in Safe Ground – the group of homeless people and advocates pushing for a legal encampment – simply want to camp and are not interested in permanent shelter.

Other critics just don't want a tent city sprouting up on their street.

The latest unsanctioned encampment includes about 140 tents staked at the end of North 10th Street in the city's River District.

Safe Grounders represent a small portion of the campers. They have been joined by dozens of others forced out of the American Parkway thicket by rangers. Those affiliated with the Safe Ground movement take pains to show they're different than the larger, unorganized group of people sleeping on the parkway.

Advocates say a permanent camp would have rules to help ensure responsible behavior. It would be capped at 100 residents, who could stay no longer than 18 to 24 months. Instead of tents, the group proposes solar-powered cabins.

Drugs and alcohol would be prohibited and the camp would include job and medical services. Advocates said it would serve as a springboard to permanent housing.

"We have the same goal as everyone else: to get people off the American River Parkway," said Safe Ground head Steve Watters.

Safe Ground leaders said they have identified two private parcels – one in the city, one in North Highlands – as possible sites for the camp.

The cause is gaining some traction, albeit limited. Councilman Jay Schenirer, who represents Curtis Park, Oak Park and other south area neighborhoods, has emerged as a vocal supporter. He has organized a meeting Wednesday with city and business leaders and homeless advocates to discuss homeless issues.

"When you look at Safe Ground and you look at the rules they have proposed and the fact that it is temporary and transitional, that separates it from a homeless camp on the river," Schenirer said.

Establishing a camp on either of the proposed sites would take time, maybe years, as zoning and permitting issues are addressed.

One of the proposed sites is off Del Paso Boulevard, near Northgate Boulevard and the American River Parkway. Safe Ground said it is interested in leasing a 1.25-acre plot there.

Councilman Steve Cohn, whose district includes that area, said he would meet with the group, but is not inclined to support a homeless settlement. He said a camp for fewer than 100 people would serve as a distraction to the efforts being made to help the hundreds of other homeless people in the city.

"I'm very concerned that the stretch of the American River Parkway on both sides, from the confluence all the way into midtown, is pretty much dominated by homeless and transients," he added.

The other spot Safe Ground is looking at is a five-acre plot off Watt Avenue in North Highlands.

Sacramento County Supervisor Roberta MacGlashan recently arranged for Safe Ground leaders and county officials to discuss zoning issues at the site, said MacGlashan's chief of staff, Ted Wolter. MacGlashan hasn't come to a decision on the Safe Ground concept because "it's really just a fact-finding issue at this point," Wolter said.

Despite the lack of a safe ground, city officials say they have made strides in addressing homelessness. They note the creation of more than 2,300 permanent housing units over the past two years. Another 100 beds are available nightly during the winter months at houses of worship.

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