After months of resistance, Councilman Allen Warren this week convinced his fellow Sacramento City Council members to consider a homeless tent camp in his North Sacramento district if he can come up with a solid plan.
“I don’t know whether it’s late or it’s because you are persistent, I am open to considering this,” Mayor Darrell Steinberg told Warren as Tuesday night’s marathon council meeting crept past midnight.
Steinberg has opposed Warren’s tent pitch for months, and the mayor’s cautious blessing came with formidable caveats, including the need to finalize a site and budget.
Warren told the council he would like to find a vacant city-owned parcel of at least 1 acre in his district to use as a “test” for an outdoor triage center that could house up to 200 homeless people for as many as 120 days. After that, the facility would close.
He described the project as a cluster of large barrack-style tents that could house up to eight people each. The village would be low-barrier, meaning there would be few restrictions on who or what could be brought in, including pets and significant others. In many current shelters, men and women can’t stay together, nor can they bring animals.
The site would have portable showers, restrooms and staff around the clock. It would also offer services such as mental health and addiction counseling, and have the goal of stabilizing residents enough to move into more permanent housing at the end of the trial period.
Warren envisions drawing people who already camp in his district. As rain and high water have pushed people away from secluded spots by rivers and creeks, North Sacramento has seen an increase in homeless people camping in residential and business areas. Warren said that these were in effect “unsanctioned camps,” and that creating a city-run facility would provide “a much more dignified” alternative.
“It would be a facility where people could live without the fear of harassment,” Warren said. “But it would also do something that is very important for our community, which is take people off the levees and the waterways.”
Warren said that a local nonprofit would run the facility and he had arranged private financing for part of it. He asked the city for up to $100,000 in operating costs. He said that he had two parcels in mind, but was working to finalize a place that met safety and accessibility requirements.
“It gives (homeless people) a place where they can rest and begin to rebuild themselves and rebuild their lives,” said homeless advocate James Lee Clark in support of the idea.
Steinberg cautioned homeless advocates in the audience that he would only back the tent city if they understood it was not going to lead to a repeal of the local anti-camping ordinance or an expansion of tent camp locations across the city.
“You want to try this, that would be my compact with you,” Steinberg said.
Other council members also expressed reservations.
Councilman Steve Hansen questioned whether the $100,000 city investment – which could be authorized by the city manager without council approval – should receive more scrutiny. Councilman Eric Guerra asked that any tent city include a monitoring program for the surrounding neighborhood to ensure there were no negative impacts for people living nearby.
The idea of a “safe ground” for camping has been considered in Sacramento before. Last year, a delegation from Sacramento, including councilmen Jay Schenirer, Jeff Harris, Hansen and Guerra, toured Seattle’s legal camps for inspiration. Local attorney Mark Merin and advocacy group Safe Ground Sacramento have also long attempted to get a permit from the city for a camp.
Warren’s idea is also similar to one approved hours earlier by the county Board of Supervisors. Director of Homeless Initiatives Cindy Cavanaugh proposed a 75-bed, low-barrier shelter coupled with services including mental health treatment and help finding housing. She said it could open by January 2018.
Warren said that he could open his project in 30 days once it finds a home. The homeless warming centers currently run by the city and county are slated to close March 31.
Warren pointed out, “even when its not raining, it’s going to get hot at some point,” and said he would return to the council in coming weeks with a more detailed plan.
Ellen Garrison contributed to this report.