Editorial: The homeless issue isn't hopeless -- Sacramento should look at the haven in Placerville

Published: Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6E

Sometime this winter, there will be a big storm. Emergency personnel will be called upon to rescue homeless people camped out illegally along the American River Parkway. The county and city of Sacramento will scrounge around for emergency vouchers that the most needy of the illegal campers can use at motels. The rest will drift between churches that participate in Sacramento's nomadic winter shelter program, parks, the streets and then back to the river. The sad pattern is as predictable as, well, Christmas.

Before the first big storm hits, maybe Sacramento's elected leaders should travel to Placerville to visit Hangtown Haven, that city's government-sanctioned campground for the homeless. It sits on a vacant lot not far from downtown. Three dozen or so tents surround a covered common area with a fire pit. The camp has running water, electricity and chemical toilets. It is by no means an ideal solution to the homeless problem, nor a permanent one. But for now, it is the best of a lot of bad options.

At the urging of longtime resident and Placerville Vice Mayor Wendy Mattson, the City Council voted unanimously to approve a special-use permit last summer for just 90 days. The 90-day experiment received glowing reviews. So in October, the council voted again to let it stay open until Nov. 15. 2013.

How did it happen?

In part it grew out of frustration. Before Hangtown Haven, local homeless people camped illegally in a forested area between Highway 50 and Broadway, Placerville's main drag. Police regularly rousted them, throwing away tons of trash and human waste. In this fire-prone area, officials worried about the dozens of campfires that the homeless set to cook and keep warm.

A sanctioned campground does not eliminate illegal camping, but it cuts it down a lot. It gives the homeless legal options and most have taken advantage of it.

Homeless advocates first formed a nonprofit corporation. They found a willing landowner, who leased them property and provided water, electricity and chemical toilets. The nonprofit, Hangtown Haven Inc., took out an insurance policy, indemnifying the city and the property owner. They enlisted the county sanitation department, which brought in Dumpsters.

Potential residents are screened. They must be from the area and cannot be registered sex offenders. The residents of Hangtown Haven govern themselves, and those who do not abide by the rules are evicted.

The camp can hold as many as 60 people, but its population fluctuates. Many original residents have found jobs or housing and moved on. New ones have moved in.

All this happened in a conservative community. It was a practical remedy to what had long been an intractable problem. It garnered the support of the business community, local politicians, caring individuals and local churches.

Why can't Sacramento try something like this? The structure is there.

Safe Ground Inc., a group of homeless people and their advocates, have been looking for a suitable site for several years now without success. Their model is more elaborate than Hangtown Haven. It calls for small cabins, not tents, and it has a more robust social service component.

Unfortunately, politicians in Sacramento have lacked the will to get this done. Maybe the good folks in Placerville can show them a way. Wouldn't it be nice if it happened before the next big winter storm?

The Bee's past stands

"The cat-and-mouse game of chasing the homeless from one location to another – and demonizing them as subhuman – is not what this community is about. Let's try something different."

– Sept. 12, 2012

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