What will reduce the number of homeless people, not surprisingly, is housing. But before that, we need immediately to establish safe places for homeless people to live – specially built communities of affordable cabins, communal facilities and essential services.
Since 2008, the pioneering organization Safe Ground Sacramento has advocated the construction of such communities, similar to Dignity Village in Portland and the city-sanctioned temporary communities in Seattle.
At present, law enforcement can only roust homeless residents or take them to jail. They cannot direct them to any legal or safe place to stay, to be, to live, to rest, to store their few belongings. Shelters are inadequate and barely funded. So we turn to the police, who arrest homeless residents, transport them to jail, or drop them off at hospital emergency rooms. All these measures cost between $5,000 and $60,000 per year per person, as shown by a recent definitive study in Santa Clara County.
Designated Safe Ground communities can provide not only sanctuary, but also help individuals get on their feet with services including job training, drug and alcohol treatment, and medical care. This alternative has wide public support.
Plans and architectural drawings, potential locations and ideas for funding have been presented to the Sacramento City Council and Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, but have not overcome the resistance and denial of our representatives and special interests.
The fact is that as long as rents continue to rise and jobs are scarce, hundreds of new people join the ranks of the homeless every month in this region. This growing number of homeless people in Sacramento has alarmed the city and county.
Officials have funded additional law enforcement to evict them from open space along the American River and limited otherwise legal practices such as use of barbecues in public areas. Homeless campers are presumed to be one cause of fires and environmental degradation. Even if this is true, arrests cannot prevent or deter camping by homeless people trying to survive.
San Francisco is tackling its concentration of homeless people in the Tenderloin district by creating “navigation centers” where homeless persons can get shelter with their pets and their partners, and connect with necessary services. Los Angeles announced that it’s committing $100 million to create affordable housing for homeless people
Important new legislation has been introduced in California – The Right To Rest Act – to protect homeless people from arrest for simply resting, praying, sharing food in public and sleeping in legally parked cars.
Safe Ground’s time is now. It’s not effective to express helpless dismay or condemnation, or to call for new criminal task forces. Instead, let’s be smart. Let’s show enlightenment and compassion, and let’s allow homeless people to live in thoughtfully designed and located communities.
Most of this can be done with private funds if only local government will facilitate it. The poor and homeless will not just disappear. Denial of reality does not work. We must act, and homeless people – desperate for housing, safety and stability – will act with us once there is hope.
Cathleen Williams and Mark Merin are on the board of Safe Ground Sacramento, which endorses the views expressed.