As grinding cold and arctic air descends upon the city, just cruise downtown Sacramento at night and see the dozens of people sleeping in worn sleeping bags in doorways, on church and library steps, on sidewalks. Walk down 12th Street to North B at Ahern or pass by the Union Gospel Mission on Jibboom. Count the lines of people who lie down there at night, huddled in blankets.
An entire existence is consumed by finding a place to sleep at night and managing survival gear during the day as these homeless people get their food, deal with bathroom and cleanliness needs, and drag their stuff back to the places they found to sleep to set up their camps for the night.
Five years ago, homeless people who had been dispersed came together in the relatively flat fields owned or leased by the city, Blue Diamond and SMUD. A “tent city” was created, soon housing 400 people. This tent community, in view of the state’s Capitol, attracted national and international attention, and became a symbol of the desperate economic crisis.
During the weeks of the tent city’s survival, campsites were being improved with outside furniture, low picket fences and flowers; trash was collected; donated portable toilets serviced. Problems were dealt with. The police kept an eye out.
Then the bulldozers came and tore out the tents and the city engaged in an orgy of destruction. People were fenced out and patrols became harsher. The city returned to its policy – move on or face arrest.
What could these folks be doing if they were not always moving, with the few possessions they must cart from place to place?
Anything and everything! They could be trying to find jobs; they could be reconnecting with family; getting therapy; qualifying for training, or school, or medical care. They could be building community, helping each other, and providing hope to those who have been beaten down by the trials of homelessness and are addicted and/or suffering mental illnesses.
Meanwhile the city and county could save the millions of dollars spent to cite and arrest homeless folks and confiscate their property, and fewer would die. Death claims a homeless person every week, and emergency room costs are soaring.
A tent city can be set up quickly, as winter sets in, on private property located close to city services, and would be a staging ground for needy folks who would welcome the chance to come out of the woodwork and pitch camp while they try for something better than living in a tent when it’s cold and when it’s raining.
A tent city is obviously no answer to the problem of homelessness, and it does not lower the standard for the treatment of homeless people. But it gives them more than they have now, and they need that before they can get into very limited housing as it becomes available. Shelters offer no stability and, anyway, have impossibly long waiting lists.
If we want to do something for homeless people now living outside in the city, we should allow homeless people to be someplace from which trash collection can be arranged, where portable toilets can be erected and serviced, and from which the first steps away from homelessness can be supported.
If the city would just step aside and let private persons make property available for tent encampments of a few people, or as many as possible, consistent with peace and safety, we could get people off of the streets and into secure areas where they could recover some dignity.
This is needed now, while the Safe Ground project, envisioned as a community of cabins with a communal kitchen, is privately developed.
Perhaps, if people agree that a tent city is preferable to spreading out homeless people across the city and keeping them on the move, the members of City Council should hear that, and maybe they’ll say, “OK, let’s give it a try,” at least it’s worth finding out if it would work.
My guess is that the energy that would be released by a relaxation of the anti-camping ordinance to allow homeless people to camp on private property would be staggering, and that phenomenal change would produce a result of which we and the city could be proud.
Mark E. Merin is a civil rights attorney in Sacramento.