U.N. investigator urges Sacramento to provide water, sanitation for homeless

Published: Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Monday, Feb. 6, 2012 - 9:14 am

In 2009, they caught Oprah Winfrey's attention.

Last year, they were featured in a lengthy article in Harper's magazine.

Now a small but vocal band of homeless people fighting for the right for a legal campground in Sacramento has scored an international coup. A special investigator for the United Nations, following a visit last year with Sacramento's homeless campers, is appealing to Mayor Kevin Johnson to provide them with proper sanitation and drinking water.

Johnson had yet to formally reply to the investigator's letter as of late Friday.

"Sacramento is now being judged by the entire community of nations as having failed its human rights obligations to its own citizens," said Colin Bailey, staff attorney at Legal Services of Northern California, which has represented the ragtag group of homeless people who are active in the Safe Ground movement. "If that doesn't motivate the city to move forward, then I do not know what will."

Sacramento is hardly remarkable in its struggle to accommodate people who are unable or unwilling to find indoor shelter. Cities from Seattle to New York continue to grapple with the issue, trying to balance humanitarian concerns with enforcement of ordinances that ban homeless camping. Only a handful have found workable solutions.

By the most recent count, as many as 1,000 people in Sacramento are without shelter on any given night. The nonprofit Safe Ground community of campers is relatively small, consisting of fewer than 100 people who purposefully pitch their tents in various locations and are routinely rousted by police and park rangers.

Yet in recent years the campers have received outsized attention.

"It's hard to explain why Sacramento has become so prominent" in the debate about homelessness, said Stephen Watters, executive director of Safe Ground. "Part of it is that this city has just been so resistant to work through this problem. Also, we have some unique people on our side."

Those include prominent civil rights attorney Mark Merin, Sacramento developer Moe Mohanna and William T. Vollmann, a local resident and book author who penned the 2011 Harper's article about Sacramento's homeless.

"I also think that the fact that Oprah came here in 2009 had some way of carrying over," said Watters.

The most recent spotlight has come courtesy of an independent expert who reports to the United Nations Council on Human Rights, which assesses human rights issues throughout the world.

Catarina de Albuquerque, the U.N.'s first "special rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation," visited Sacramento last year as part of a fact-finding mission to the United States. She was referred to Sacramento by a Washington, D.C., firm that litigates homeless issues.

She visited Washington, D.C., Boston and Redding, among other cities, and prepared a report about access to water and sanitation among various groups of people, including homeless campers in Sacramento. The report notes that homelessness is "increasingly being criminalized" in the U.S., and cites lack of access to bathrooms and water fountains for campers.

"The United States, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, must ensure that everyone, without discrimination, has physical and economic access, in all spheres of life, to sanitation which is safe, hygienic, secure, socially and culturally acceptable, and which provides privacy and ensures dignity," she wrote.

"An immediate, interim solution is to ensure access to restrooms facilities in public places, including during the night. The long-term solution to homelessness must be to ensure adequate housing."

De Albuquerque followed up this week with a letter to Johnson, who has said he is open to the idea of a legal campground with basic services.

"I call on your government to make the right decision to ensure the realization of the human rights to water and sanitation of the homeless people living in the city of Sacramento, thereby ensuring their life in dignity," the letter reads.

Although De Albuquerque has no authority to force change, her report and letter carry clout, said Bailey, the Legal Services attorney.

"The U.N. is saying, 'You've got a human rights problem right there in your backyard, and you should fix it.' "

According to the U.N.'s rules and procedures, special rapporteurs such as De Albuquerque are independent experts who "serve in their personal capacity, and do not receive salaries or financial compensation for their work" from the organization.

De Albuquerque holds a law degree from the University of Lisbon in Portugal and for several years led negotiations over the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Human Rights Council appointed her in 2008.

Joan Burke, executive director of Loaves & Fishes, a homeless advocacy group that supports Safe Ground, said De Albuquerque's report and letter to the mayor could be "the thing that might finally push us forward."

"The fact that she is representing an international body is significant," Burke said. "And this is something that is so universal, that everyone can understand. We are talking about fundamental human dignity and basic biological needs."

Johnson has pointed out that his administration has found permanent housing for hundreds of people during the past two years.

"We appreciate the interest and concern, and would certainly welcome the resources of the United Nations to add to the great strides Sacramento has made in addressing this challenge," said Joaquin McPeek, the mayor's spokesman.

"Instead of sweeping this problem under the rug," he said, "we've made unprecedented progress to work on a regional effort that provides shelter, creates permanent housing opportunities and ends chronic homelessness in our city."

Watters said Safe Ground has been frustrated by a lack of progress in trying to find suitable city property for a legal encampment. It is working to find land to buy or lease, and "I'm optimistic that 2012 is the year we'll find a piece of property and get some agreement."

In the meantime, he said, the group would be happy if the city would simply allow campers a place where they can go to the bathroom and have access to drinking water.

"Until we have enough shelter and supportive housing, these folks are going to be out there," he said. "The least we can do is give them a restroom."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Cynthia Hubert

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