As the Safe Ground Stake Down homeless fair opened in downtown Sacramento on Wednesday afternoon, a cluster of homeless people gathered near 15 big blue tents where many will sleep temporarily.
"These tents would be the Cadillacs of any homeless camp," said John Kraintz, 59, a formerly homeless man who now lives in a downtown residential hotel.
Designed to educate the public about homelessness, Stake Down takes place in a vacant Alkali Flat lot owned by civil-rights attorney Mark Merin, and it includes arts and educational activities for the homeless.
The fair is the latest development in the four-year evolution of Sacramento's Safe Ground movement, whose goal is to provide safe temporary shelter for Sacramento's estimated 1,000 homeless people.
Safe Ground organizers say the landscape for homeless issues in Sacramento is changing.
Within 90 days, said the group's executive director, Stephen Watters, the nonprofit hopes to identify a property suitable for a permanent transitional community of 65 small cabins.
"Right now, there's really good news going on," Watters said. "We have a small working group with the city looking at city-owned properties we might lease. We're making progress."
Partly, that's because two City Council members support Safe Ground's goals: Allen Warren, elected last fall to represent north Sacramento; and Jay Schenirer, whose district includes Curtis Park, Oak Park and a dozen other area neighborhoods.
"I know we can do better than we've done," said Warren, who pledged City Council support for Safe Ground in the Stake Down opening ceremony. "It's difficult to save everyone, but we can save some."
And partly, Watters said, progress has come because Safe Ground has matured in its approach since incorporating in 2010.
The evolution began with Tent City, the illegal encampment of about 100 people who for a few rainy weeks in early 2009 lived in a field near the Blue Diamond Growers plant. With its overtones of Depression-era shantytowns, the encampment attracted the attention of the national media – and became a public embarrassment for city leaders.
Months later, in a challenge to a Sacramento ordinance forbidding camping for more than one night, Merin allowed two dozen homeless campers to pitch their tents on his property at 12th and C streets, the same lot where the fair is taking place.
At the time, campers disbanded when Mayor Kevin Johnson promised to help the homeless find legal "safe ground" where they could live outdoors without fear of being rousted from their camps.
"The mayor's commitment to helping the homeless is as strong as ever," said his spokesman, Ben Sosenko. "He wants to solve this problem."
A similar effort last year by Placerville city officials quickly established Hangtown Haven, a homeless campground with running water, electricity and sanitation.
But the Sacramento project stalled, even while the city made other efforts to combat homelessness. Officials helped establish the public-private nonprofit Sacramento Steps Forward, which manages funding of the region's homeless programs. And the city used federal recovery act funds to subsidize the rent of 2,000 apartments to help low-income and homeless people get back on their feet.
"There is the political will to address homelessness," said Joan Burke, advocacy director for Sacramento's Loaves & Fishes homeless services complex and a Safe Ground board member.
"The big factor with Safe Ground is that people remember the big tent city from 2009. People picture a lot of people crowded into a field in third-world conditions with no sanitation, no garbage collection, no electricity and no government."
Over time, Safe Ground identified more than a half-dozen potential sites, only to be met with city or neighborhood objections.
One of the sites deemed unacceptable because of neighborhood opposition was in Schenirer's district near the Campbell Soup plant. Another was adjacent to the River District, the Richards Boulevard business area between Loaves & Fishes and the many existing illegal homeless encampments on the American River Parkway.
Business owners there, as well as people living and working in the Alkali Flat and Mansion Flats areas of downtown Sacramento, have said they're fed up with feeling like a dumping ground for the region's homeless problem.
They've watched as sweep after sweep of illegal camps end up doing little but chasing the homeless from one area to another – and as well-meaning church groups have organized ad hoc food distribution, unintentionally encouraging the illegal campsites.
"We feel like there's an over concentration of homeless services in our area," said River District executive director Patty Kleinknecht. "We support permanent housing solutions but not necessarily camping.
"If we spend the money building campgrounds, we're not getting the permanent housing we need."
The Safe Ground movement began making progress only when it moved beyond its original concept of establishing a permanent tent community.
Today Watters envisions a typical Safe Ground community to include 65 small cabins on a two-acre property, with a community center to provide sanitation, showers and dining and to house job training and other services.
"It's intended as a first-step community," he said. "Our purpose is to provide that first step."
Even so, critics charge that Safe Ground is a distraction from the city's ongoing efforts to combat homelessness.
City Councilman Steve Cohn said that Mercy Housing California's newly opened eight-story apartment tower in downtown Sacramento, which includes 75 units designated for people emerging from homelessness, makes a greater dent in solving the problem.
"I don't have a philosophical objection to Safe Ground, especially now that they're not talking about a tent city," said Cohn. "But it's just a small segment. Most homeless people don't want to live in that condition for very long.
"I'm not against doing an experimental pilot program for Safe Ground. So many people are wedded to that idea. That's fine, but they need to find locations outside the River District and Alkali Flat."
Yet a key element of the Stake Down fair – which also features an origami workshop, yoga class and a schedule of teach-ins – is the temporary homeless encampment on the edge of Alkali Flat.
For three of the fair's seven days, a maximum of 49 campers will live in the 15 tents allowed under a conditional city permit.
"We want to empower homeless people, and we're hoping homelessness will be demystified," said Merin.
One of the fair's highlights, according to organizers, is a $5,600, 120-square-foot cabin – the size of a small bedroom – that serves as a prototype for cabins in future Safe Ground communities.
Tammy Jones, 42, volunteers now with Safe Ground, but in the winter months of 2007, she and her husband were homeless, living at the river after job loss.
"It was cold and wet," she said. "You wrapped tarp around the tent to keep it from getting wet. I caught walking pneumonia from sleeping on the wet ground.
"This Safe Ground community has been a vision, and we want it to come true."
Call The Bee's Anita Creamer, (916) 321-1136.