Sacramento homeless gather this weekend to promote ‘SafeGround,’ civil rights

Homeless men and women are gathering in downtown Sacramento this weekend to promote civil rights for the poor and a “SafeGround” where the down and out could live in tiny cottages with basic services, free of police interference.

On a gritty corner in Alkali Flat, with the city’s permission, they have pitched tents to draw attention to the need for more housing options. They are learning about their legal rights, listening to music, reciting poetry and seeking job leads. They are calling the event Homeward StakeDown.

The ultimate goal, said organizer Paula Lomazzi, “is to bring community awareness to the issues that homeless people have, and to move toward changing the laws so people are not punished for living outdoors.”

It is a goal that advocates have been pushing for more than a decade.

Recently, they have reported progress in finding suitable property for a SafeGround village of 60 cottages and cooking and bathroom facilities for chronically homeless people. But the long-standing and sometimes controversial effort to establish such a facility hit a speed bump in recent weeks with the departure of the nonprofit group’s executive director, Steve Watters.

“Everyone wants to see SafeGround happen, but fundraising was a continuing difficulty for us,” said board member Joan Burke of the homeless charity Loaves & Fishes. “We reached a point where we were unable to pay an executive director’s salary.”

Nevertheless, she said, “we absolutely have not given up” on SafeGround. “We are actively fundraising and we are close to getting a site, and once that happens everything else will move forward.”

Potential future residents of the project roamed in and out of a dozen colorful domed tents on Friday at the event at 12th and C streets. Loaves & Fishes served chili dogs, and experts offered practical advice for homeless people who are approached by police officers enforcing a city ban against camping in unauthorized places for more than 24 hours at a time.

“Don’t submit to searches. Don’t talk back. Demand an attorney,” advised tattooed UC Davis law student Claire White, speaking to a group of about 20 people sitting in a circle on folding chairs. “Your legal challenges can and do make a difference in your community.”

As White finished her presentation, a neighbor approached the group with a request. Did anyone need a weekend job helping her move?

“I need two strong men!” she said. More than a dozen hands shot up, and soon she had her crew.

Christopher Thevenot, who said he landed on the streets “due to my drug use and incarceration,” was not chosen. “Better luck next time,” he said with a smile. “All of us need a little bit of work.”

About a block from the StakeDown site, Janet Little of the nonprofit Green Hands urban farm project was busy transforming a square of vacant property into a community garden for homeless people like Thevenot. The project will feature raised beds where people without permanent homes can learn about nutrition, plant fruits and vegetables and harvest food to help sustain them.

“We hope it will spawn a whole bunch of guerrilla gardeners and urban farmers” on vacant land all over Sacramento, Little said.

It sounded like a fine plan to Aaron Washington, who was taking photographs and talking to participants in the StakeDown event.

Washington said she spent a year on the streets while attending school to become a paralegal. She recently moved into Mather Community Campus, a transitional housing program at the former Air Force base. Now she is looking for work, she said, while advocating for others.

“I was there. I took showers in parks, slept in dark alleys, studied by flashlight,” she said. She had to scrounge for food and rarely had access to fresh produce. “It opened my mind to the level of desperation and determination that homeless people feel. I believe I am supposed to make a difference somehow, so that’s why I’m here.”

Robert and Toni Brewster, having lunch at the event, said they sleep in downtown Sacramento and are rousted each morning before the sun rises. They spend their days looking for food and work, they said.

“Everyone thinks homeless people are all straight-up bums, drug addicts and alcoholics,” said Robert Brewster. “It’s not true.”

The StakeDown event is a step toward educating the public about such issues, he said, and “letting homeless people know that they absolutely have rights and can stand up for themselves.”