Homeless service providers and advocates urged a Sacramento City Council subcommittee Monday to give the model of sanctioned homeless camps serious thought as the city grapples with how best to address its homeless population.
Nearly 200 people attended the committee meeting and applauded often when the concept of tent cities was mentioned.
The three-member City Council panel was joined by other high-ranking city officials last week in Seattle, which has granted permits for three sanctioned homeless tent cities. Two of those camps are operational, and a third is under construction.
The facilities connect residents with on-site social services and access to organizations for low-income housing. City officials want the facilities to serve as springboards into permanent housing, although it’s too early to tell whether that’s happening in Seattle.
Councilman Jay Schenirer, the chair of the subcommittee, said he expects the panel will bring a set of recommendations on tackling the city’s homeless issue to the full City Council in mid-April. That could include a proposal to allow tent cities.
Councilman Jeff Harris, a subcommittee member, said he “didn’t have high expectations going to Seattle.” He said the trip changed his outlook.
“It provided stability, it provided safety,” he said of the tent city model.
Emily Halcon, the city of Sacramento’s homeless services coordinator, said the Seattle camps are serving the least vulnerable of the homeless population. Residents must abide by a code of conduct, drug and alcohol use is prohibited, and registered sex offenders are not allowed to stay there.
Halcon said a “key component” of the Seattle camps was the system of self-governance. Camp residents elect leaders, screen new campers and conduct security on site and in the surrounding neighborhood.
The model has been under consideration in Sacramento for years but has never had considerable political support. City officials have been unable to identify a site – or sites – for a camp that would generate neighborhood support.
Stephen Watters, executive director of First Step Communities, which is advocating for a village of tiny homes for the homeless, provided some insight into where a sanctioned camp could be. He told the committee his group is reviewing sites in three City Council districts: District 2 in North Sacramento; District 5, which covers Oak Park, Curtis Park, Hollywood Park and other neighborhoods south of downtown; and District 8 in Meadowview.
Mark Merin, an attorney who has campaigned for a sanctioned homeless encampment for years, said a facility for 100 people would cost $120,000 a year. The camps would likely be run by a nonprofit organization.
“If we had some relaxation of (the city’s ban on urban camping) and gave permission for private folks to open up their vacant properties to encampments, we could overnight take that number of people sleeping on the streets and put them into a safe environment,” Merin said.
Sister Libby Fernandez of homeless services provider Loaves and Fishes urged the council committee to consider a sanctioned camp, also known as “safe ground.” She also called the city’s anti-camping laws “morally wrong” and advocated for shelter triage centers that are open 24 hours a day.