For years, Sister Libby Fernandez and other homeless advocates marched through the streets of Sacramento, demanding the city designate a safe place where homeless people could live without fear of harm or arrest.
But their efforts at establishing a "safe ground" of tent cities or villages of tiny homes went nowhere as the city's homelessness crisis deepened.
Now, a new approach is on the horizon. Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who has made curbing homelessness a centerpiece of his administration, announced earlier this week plans to place pop-up structures resembling giant tents in at least three neighborhoods he has yet to identify.
Known as "Sprung" shelters, they would each have beds for as many as 200 clients, as well as paid "navigators" who would help connect people to insurance, health care, social services and ultimately permanent housing.
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But some observers wonder whether rising rents and a lack of affordable housing in the area will ultimately doom the project. If the city has no available permanent housing for people to move into, they say, will hundreds of homeless residents linger in the Sprung structures for months or years at a time, defeating the purpose of the program?
"Stabilizing people in these triage centers is a good first step," said Roberto Jimenez, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Mutual Housing California. "But there's very little affordable housing available to take them beyond a triage facility."
John Foley, executive director of Sacramento Self Help Housing, another program that helps homeless people find stability, agreed.
"We're all appreciative of the mayor's energy and goals," Foley said. "It's certainly better for people to be in a shelter than outside. But this would not be a good thing to do unless it's short term."
The idea is to have people stay in the tents for a limited period of time, Steinberg said. The Sprung shelters, named after the company that created them, will be run like the city's innovative triage facility on Railroad Drive in North Sacramento, he said. They will be "low barrier" facilities that operate 24 hours and allow residents to bring in partners, possessions and pets.
The Railroad Drive shelter, near Del Paso Boulevard, has enrolled more than 300 people since December. Once slated as a winter shelter, it now is scheduled to remain open at least through August.
The shelter, operated by Volunteers of America, has helped more than 70 chronically homeless people find stable housing, and connected many others with the paperwork and services necessary to put them on paths toward stability, according to the city.
Steinberg said the Sprung shelters would be similarly effective, even given the city's limited stock of affordable housing. "If we have three shelters, and they're serving hundreds of clients a year, we're getting a lot of people off of the streets," the mayor said in an interview with The Bee.
But the city should be wary of the structures becoming "warehouses" for homeless people, some advocates said.
"The city proved that we can pull people into a triage shelter and have some success finding them housing," said Bob Erlenbusch, director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. "If that doesn't happen, it's just a warehouse, and I'm against warehousing."
The dearth of affordable housing in the Sacramento area likely will be an impediment to the project's ultimate goals, he and others said. Average rents in the area have surged from $862 in 2010 to $1,205 last year, statistics show. Last year's vacancy rate was 2.4 percent. Meanwhile, the homeless population has increased 30 percent since 2015, according to a recent census.
State legislators eager to address California's housing affordability crisis crafted more than a dozen new bills last session that aim to spur development. But they are unlikely to come to fruition for years. Until then, Sacramento and other cities are struggling to accommodate people who are homeless or at risk of becoming so.
Longtime housing advocate Rachel Iskow said the oversized tents would be "an appropriate safety net" for some homeless people. But Iskow said she would like to see more resources dedicated to homeless families with children, who may not be candidates for living at the Sprung shelters.
"We continue as a city and county to ignore this huge and more hidden population of the homeless," Iskow said. "The best way local jurisdictions can help with a permanent solution to homelessness is to creatively raise local revenue for affordable, permanent housing," and leverage funds from the state and federal government, she said.
Success down south
In San Diego, Sprung structures are being cited as a key reason why homelessness has decreased in that city.
Spurred in part by a hepatitis A outbreak that left more than a dozen people dead, San Diego last year approved three large tents sheltering homeless men, women and families. The first facility opened in December near a downtown railyard not far from Petco Park, home of baseball's San Diego Padres.
The shelter is staffed by navigators who help residents find permanent housing, drug and mental health counseling and health care. The program's goal is to shelter people for no more than 120 days at a time before transitioning them into housing.
A report released last week by the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless said the city's unsheltered population had declined by 6 percent over the past year, and officials in part credited the Sprung tents for the decrease. The city is spending more than $6 million to run three tents for seven months.
In Sacramento, Sutter Health has committed $1.3 million toward purchasing and operating the Sprung structures, and the city is searching for more private funding. The tents cost $1 million each to put up, plus operating costs, which are expected to be less than the $450,000 per month spent running the Railroad Drive facility. Steinberg said he hopes the first tent will open in September.
Perhaps the thorniest question is where the tents will be placed. Steinberg said he would like to see them scattered across Sacramento on vacant lands owned by the city.
Some residents of neighborhoods already saturated with services for poor and homeless people believe those areas should be exempt from hosting the structures.
Larry Glover-Meade, president of an association that represents residents of the Woodlake neighborhood, which is near the triage shelter, said he supports the tents "as long as they are humane" and if "they are equitably located throughout the city."
"The mayor has repeatedly said that the winter triage shelter is a success and has lowered crime rates" in North Sacramento, Glover-Meade said. "I would ask him to lead the charge in opening one in his neighborhood."
The mayor lives in Sacramento's Greenhaven area.
Glover-Meade also said the city's focus should be on affordable housing, not shelters. "The housing crisis is real and growing," he said. "Tent cities won't solve it."
Like North Sacramento, the city's River District near downtown has more than its share of services for poor people, some residents argue. Patty Kleinknecht, executive director of the business district, said that area should not be a prime candidate for one of the Sprung tents.
"With 450 shelter beds already located in the River District, we trust that the mayor will keep his word and not do anything that would further stress this area," she said.
Many of the dozens of sites around the city under consideration for the Sprung tents were for years targeted by activists for safe ground. None of those locations were deemed acceptable for that project, which envisioned tents or tiny homes in a community run by homeless people. But times have changed, advocates said.
"Even though safe ground didn't happen, I believe it has influenced everything that is going on now," said Joan Burke of Loaves & Fishes, who, along with Sister Libby Fernandez, was a leader in the movement.
"The difference today is that all of us are much more aware of homelessness in our community," Burke said. "They are more visible, and that has made people more willing to look at shelters like this. Also, there is much more political will with this mayor and city council to address the problem."
Burke said she thinks the Sprung structures will go a long way toward "getting people to a safe place, and off the streets. That's a big improvement in and of itself," she said.
"But it's not a place where we should expect people to live permanently," she added. "It's a means to an end, and the end is permanent housing."