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Sacramento intends to declare homeless ‘shelter crisis.’ Will that enable public camping?

'You need to help them until they're stable'

At a community meeting Thursday, March 1, 2018, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg made the case to expand shelter options.
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At a community meeting Thursday, March 1, 2018, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg made the case to expand shelter options.

Faced with a growing homeless population and skyrocketing housing costs, the city of Sacramento is poised to declare an “emergency shelter crisis” that would bring millions of dollars in state money to fund structures for hundreds of people now living on the streets.

Advocates of homeless people said they support the declaration, and intend to use it as leverage to fight against an ordinance that makes it illegal for homeless people to camp in the city.

Sacramento is one of 11 California cities eligible for $150 million in state money to fund homeless programs in the coming year. The city’s share is $5.6 million. To receive the money, participating jurisdictions under a new state law must declare an “emergency shelter crisis,” meaning that a significant number of residents are without housing and that the situation represents a health and safety threat.

The city intends to do so, possibly this fall, and plans to use the state money primarily to erect large tent-like “Sprung Structures” to house homeless people, said Jaycob Bytel, a spokesman for Mayor Darrell Steinberg.

“Currently, the solution that offers the best opportunity to provide substantial numbers of shelter beds and make a meaningful impact are the Sprung Structures on city land,” Bytel said.

The declaration could have impacts beyond funding the Sprung tents. It would allow the city to place homeless shelters on any land owned or leased by the city, as well as to adopt minimum public health and safety standards to erect shelters quickly. Under the declaration, the city may allow homeless people to occupy “designated public facilities” during the state of emergency, according to the law.

Homeless advocates said that wording gives them an opening to once again challenge the city’s ordinance against camping outdoors for more than one day at a time. The latest legal challenge played out last year, when a Superior Court jury ruled in favor of the city by deciding that the ordinance did not violate the constitutional rights of homeless plaintiffs.

Advocates said the wording of the declaration means that homeless people could legally occupy city property including parks and parking lots.

“We’ve consistently called for a moratorium on the enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance,” said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. “If they put up three tents housing 600 homeless people, what about the other 1,500-plus people” who will remain on the streets, he said. “So, a moratorium once the tents are up” makes sense, he said.

Bytel said the city attorney’s office is analyzing what impact the emergency declaration might have on the anti-camping ordinance.

Civil rights attorney Mark Merin, who has been fighting since 2009 for a “safe ground” where homeless people can sleep without police interference, said he intends once again to fight for that moratorium. He said he will challenge any moves by the city to keep the camping ordinance intact during the state of emergency.

Los Angeles last year became the first city in California to take advantage of the new emergency shelter crisis law. Mayor Eric Garcetti joined the City Council in declaring the crisis, and signed into law dual ordinances to help the city quickly bring more homeless people indoors.

Several other cities across California have declared a shelter crisis in recent years, including Oakland, Berkeley and San Jose.

Berkeley first declared a homeless shelter crisis in January 2016. The declaration has since been extended into 2020 as the city faces increasing rents, a spike in homeless encampments and a shortage of shelter options, according to an October 2017 city resolution.

The declaration allows homeless individuals to “occupy designated city facilities or facilities leased by the city as shelters” and lifts many planning, zoning and permit requirements for the placement of new shelters.

Oakland passed a second shelter crisis last year, allowing that city to open a transitional housing facility and enable a permitted homeless encampment of small sheds, similar to facilities that have long been discussed in Sacramento.

The Sprung shelter model has been credited with helping reduce homelessness in San Diego, among other places. Steinberg has said that he intends to open the first of three Sprung structures, each of which would house up to 200 people, by September.

The mayor’s office has yet to publicly identify sites for the structures. Bytel said Friday that the city is making progress in narrowing down potential plots of vacant city land in which to place them. “We expect the new state money to be essential in operating these shelters,” he said.

The Sprung structures will operate much like the city’s triage shelter on Railroad Drive in North Sacramento, Steinberg said. That facility provides “wraparound” services for homeless men and women, such as counseling and help in finding permanent housing. It is scheduled to close at the end of August.

Steinberg has said the shelters are a key element of his promise to move 2,000 people off of the streets by 2020.

Sacramento County’s homeless population rose 30 percent between 2015 and 2017, according to a census last year. The census counted 3,665 people living on the streets during a single night in November. Many advocates believe the number to be far higher than the “point in time” count reflects.

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