Sacramento city officials have somewhat dismissed the protesters camping outside City Hall over the past month as a distraction from their long-term strategy to tackle homelessness with permanent housing.
Through midday Sunday, police said they had arrested 11 and cited seven protesters since the start of January, and city officials have repeatedly said they have no intention of bowing to the activists’ demand that a ban on urban camping be repealed.
However, the protest has generated new attention toward one of the city’s most pressing – and seemingly intractable – social issues. After years of political resistance, that energy is leading some at City Hall to consider a city-approved “safe ground,” an outdoor encampment with on-site services designed to provide a transitional springboard for the homeless into permanent housing.
Local homeless rights activists have advocated for a safe ground for years. Faced with neighborhood and business opposition, only Mayor Kevin Johnson and a small minority of City Council members have even considered allowing one within city limits.
But Councilman Jay Schenirer, who has supported a safe ground in the past and is the chairman of a homeless task force established last week by Johnson, said he wants to reignite the debate. He plans to organize a trip in the coming weeks with city officials and local homeless service providers to Seattle, where a homeless tent city first popped up in 1990 and where regional governments now permit the communities to exist on a rotating basis.
Sacramento officials aren’t interested in allowing dozens of homeless to camp in tents on a condensed property, like they do in Seattle. Instead, the discussions have focused on creating a facility with up to 100 small shed-like structures managed by a nonprofit.
Sister Libby Fernandez, a board member of Safe Ground Sacramento, said the group has asked the city to identify land where it could build a camp to provide transitional shelter for at least 100 homeless men and women. Fernandez and others envision the facility providing social services designed to place residents into permanent housing.
It’s always a matter of where. As long as there’s new energy around the table, maybe we can find the where.”
Sister Libby Fernandez, a board member of Safe Ground Sacramento, on trying to locate a homeless safe ground
“It’s a major piece of the puzzle,” said Fernandez, who is also executive director of homeless services organization Loaves & Fishes. “But it’s always a matter of where (you put it). As long as there’s new energy around the table, maybe we can find the where.”
Councilmen Steve Hansen and Jeff Harris – who will serve on the mayoral task force with Schenirer – said Friday they were open to the idea of a safe ground. “We have to be open to any solutions,” Harris said.
“How do you balance getting long-term solutions and putting resources there and making sure that every day, people have a shelter to go into? That’s the really, really difficult thing,” Schenirer said.
Schenirer said another model for temporary and transitional shelter that Sacramento should consider is Yolo County’s Bridge to Housing program.
In November 2014, 65 homeless men and women were moved from a long-time encampment on the banks of the Sacramento River to the Old Town Inn in West Sacramento. They received shelter for 109 days and found counseling and services. The program cost $152,000.
All but 12 stayed at the hotel for the entire time; of those who completed the program, 68 percent are still in permanent housing, said Karen Larsen, Yolo County’s mental health director.
Now, with a new round of funding from the county, Larsen said a smaller Bridge to Housing program will begin at a shelter in downtown Davis in the next few weeks. She expects the project to expand into other parts of the county, including Woodland.
498 Yolo County’s homeless population, compared to 2,659 in Sacramento
While Yolo County’s homeless population is far smaller than Sacramento’s – 498 as of the most recent count last January, compared with 2,659 in Sacramento – Larsen said the Bridge to Housing model could be replicated in Sacramento by targeting neighborhoods or communities one at a time. Like in the safe ground debate, Larsen said some neighbors opposed the West Sacramento shelter.
“The way I counter that is by saying these are human beings, this is a human rights issue,” she said. “Why not provide them support so we don’t have to see them on the street anymore?”
As they explore potential new ways to combat homelessness, Sacramento officials say they are committed to assessing the needs of the county’s unsheltered population and developing long-term, permanent solutions.
Ryan Loofbourrow, director of Sacramento Steps Forward, the county’s primary homeless service and outreach organization, said the county has 2,600 permanent housing units, nearly all of which are being used. However, hundreds more homeless individuals remain on the streets.
Officials said progress is being made. Sacramento Steps Forward reported last week it placed 73 of “the most vulnerable of the homeless population” into permanent housing between January and November of last year. More than 495 veterans and 396 chronically homeless were put into permanent housing over the same period.
“This is an issue we are dealing with every day that has gotten worse over time,” Schenirer said. “But we’re taking action that will move us in the right direction. We all want to solve this issue.”