As urban homeless camps expand, Sacramento councilman says tent city is the answer

Tiny house for homeless people better than 'bushes, underpasses'

Councilman Jeff Harris says a small, prefabricated unit could house homeless people in Sacramento. The unit was on display Monday near City Hall. "We don't need much," Tammy Culver, a homeless woman, said while touring the unit.
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Councilman Jeff Harris says a small, prefabricated unit could house homeless people in Sacramento. The unit was on display Monday near City Hall. "We don't need much," Tammy Culver, a homeless woman, said while touring the unit.

The rain broke on a recent Thursday afternoon just as Councilman Allen Warren took a backpack full of hand warmers, sanitizer and protein bars and headed out to the rougher parts of his North Sacramento district to give supplies to the homeless.

He parked on a gravel pullout above the Norwood Avenue bridge and walked through shoe-sucking mud down to its base. The path was stacked with mounds of trash: Green plastic lawn chairs, a no-parking sign, a toilet seat, the handle of an exercise bike with its body buried deep in the sludge.

Arcade Creek ran fast and full with brown water, so high the tops of barren trees that once lined the bank instead poked through the depths midstream. More than one tent was stranded out there, too, washed away by the rising tides in this winter’s storms.

On the rocks underneath the overpass, a dirty white tent stood sentinel surrounded by tarp shelters, marking this site as home to more than one person. But only two men were there, along with a handful of small barking dogs. Warren greeted a man in a black hoodie with red sleeves and a diamond stud in one ear and asked if he wanted some of the supplies. He did, but as Warren began doling them out, he realized this homeless constituent was no stranger.

“You look familiar, man,” Warren said. “You went to Grant, didn’t you? I think you might have been there when I was there.”

“What’s your name again? Wayne?” asked the man.

“Yeah, Wayne Warren,” Warren said, using the middle name he grew up with. “You were what, ’84?”

“’84,” said former classmate William Henderson.

Warren didn’t expect a reunion, but he wasn’t shocked. The problem of homelessness in North Sacramento feels personal to him, he said. It makes him want to do something just for his neighborhood, and people like Henderson: Provide a homeless camp for the chronically unsheltered.

Warren will likely push his cause Tuesday at a city-county meeting on homelessness. He wants his fellow council members to consider lifting the city’s camping ban just enough to allow a tent city in his district. Record rains this fall have pushed a long-running homeless crisis in his area onto commercial and residential streets with alarming impacts.

Warren could also benefit financially from improvement around these parts. As a developer, he’s backed multiple projects here. Just across a park from the Norwood Avenue bridge is a housing development he built, and not far is another just-finished complex where 60 homes have all sold in the $200,000 range.

But despite his tangled interests in the district he represents, Warren describes the current “crisis” as a “health and safety” issue, making life in North Sacramento harder for average people and putting the homeless themselves in danger. Flooding has washed away sleeping bags and shelters that provided the most basic of survival gear. Throughout the district, semi-permanent encampments are taking over parking lots, vacant land, sidewalks and the few remaining dry spots by the river, like Henderson’s camp.

Henderson told Warren he’s lived along this stretch of Arcade Creek for two years. His hands were covered in white dust from the boulders stacked up to the base of the road above, where he’d moved his tent when the creek rose. He remembered Warren drove a Grand Prix lowrider back in the day, he said, as he caught Warren up on his life.

He was clear and articulate, and said he didn’t use drugs. He worked with a local carnival company cooking turkey legs, but it was seasonal work. A couple of years ago, he went through a bad divorce. He ended up without a place to live.

“It just hit,” Henderson said. “I don’t know. I didn’t have anywhere to go. ... So I came out here.”

Back in his Maserati SUV, driving a few blocks away through the neighborhood he grew up in, Warren said tales like Henderson’s were all too common in this section of Sacramento, one he calls the “toughest in the city,” where destiny and geography often seem unfairly linked.

In Del Paso Heights and surrounding areas, “we’ve all got people challenged in our families,” Warren said. He grew up with seven sisters in a 900-square-foot house walking distance from Arcade Creek. If he hadn’t had enough skill with the bat and stealing bases to play on farm teams for the Yankees, who knows?

“It could have very easily been me,” said Warren.

On a nearby levee above a park where Warren’s dad played softball when he was a kid, a homeless man who calls himself Hawaiian Joe is sleeping on the asphalt without even a blanket after his gear washed away. He’s been on the river for 32 years, he said.

“My dog is not going to protect me here forever,” said Joe, who just turned 55. One of his dogs, Bama, went missing in a storm, too. He’s still got his leash and is hopeful the 12-year-old pup will return. “There is no place to go, and everybody is all to themselves.”

Recently, Warren’s district manager purchased a house just around the corner from the district office, the councilman said. He came to check on it before moving in and found two homeless people had entered through a window and were squatting. He wondered what he would have done if his two kids were with him.

Warren said his idea for a camp is a quick and practical stopgap measure to a deteriorating situation while longer-term solutions are put in place.

Warren owns a vacant field on South Avenue that backs up to the levee and the bike trail. He’s willing to let the city use for free. He has lined up a service provider who would run the camp at a cost of “a few hundred thousand” a year.

He’d like to focus on the chronically homeless in his area, giving them a place to stabilize their lives with counseling and other services – and a mandate that they contribute hours to the upkeep of the camp and the surrounding area. Community members would be screened to make sure they are from the area, and the capacity would depend on resources. He thinks rather than blight, a homeless camp could provide economic and social benefits to the neighborhood.

“We take all those folks, we help them establish in our area,” Warren said. “I think if we have select sites where we could target resources … we could take pressure off of the system instead of continuing to stretch limited resources.”

Warren’s plan has met with opposition from the city, mostly from Mayor Darrell Steinberg.

Steinberg has repeatedly said that he wants to focus on an indoor triage center and moving homeless people into permanent homes using federally funded housing vouchers. He would then give them supportive services such as counseling and drug treatment.

Steinberg has been instrumental in opening three indoor “warming centers” in the few weeks he’s been in office, and has made clear he wants the homeless under a roof.

On Tuesday, Steinberg will take his first major step towards accomplishing his vision when the City Council and the county Board of Supervisors hold a joint meeting on homelessness. Both bodies will likely pass resolutions that move Steinberg’s plan forward, though with different levels of commitment.

Steinberg wants to allot 1,600 housing slots to homeless people over the next two years, and the proposed city resolution lays out that number. The corresponding county measure is vague, instructing staff to explore the idea. Steinberg on Monday said he didn’t want more incremental steps, and that his voucher plan could break the “inertia” that has stymied solutions so far.

Warren won’t be the only councilman to bring his own ideas to the meeting. Councilman Jeff Harris on Monday parked his own plan on a side street at City Hall. It’s a stackable housing unit with a modernistic interior that Harris envisions as a quick and affordable way to create the permanent housing Steinberg wants.

The 160-square-foot dwelling has a kitchen, bathroom and bed. Harris said the city may be able to lease the units as a pilot project rather than have to buy them from the manufacturer, cutting initial costs. The demo unit will be open for tours through Feb. 1.

Warren said he supports Steinberg’s move on federal vouchers, and has a tiny-home plan of his own in the works. He said he’ll likely bring up his camp idea at the Tuesday meeting because people like Henderson can’t wait for permanent solutions.

“The longer he’s out there, the worse it’s going to get,” Warren said. “He’s a strong guy. He’s still clear, you can look in his eyes and see that. How many years can he take?”

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa