Civil rights attorney Mark Merin joined a delegation of Sacramento officials to Seattle in February to tour that city’s network of sanctioned camps for the homeless. A few weeks later, with city leaders showing lukewarm support for the model, Merin said he and his supporters would move ahead with a tent city of their own on a downtown lot he owns. And if the city got in his way, Merin threatened to sue.
Since then? Crickets.
Merin never followed through on his threat to erect a homeless “safe ground” at 12th and C streets. He didn’t return a phone call from The Sacramento Bee this week, and city officials haven’t heard from him. That lot of his remains empty.
The safe-ground debate was an element of a highly politicized environment at City Hall earlier this year over one of the city’s most urgent social issues.
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A band of protesters camped outside City Hall for weeks, demanding an end to the city’s anti-camping ordinance that allows police to arrest homeless individuals who sleep on the sidewalks. City Council meetings were ended early when demonstrators got rowdy. Following one particularly tense council meeting, a small group of protesters refused to leave City Hall until they were threatened with arrest.
That charged environment has eased, although homeless activists are planning an overnight “slumber party” at City Hall on Oct. 7 that could reignite their protest of the anti-camping law.
The relative calm has allowed city officials to put their heads down and focus on their own priorities. On Tuesday, the council is expected to finalize a contract to help the Salvation Army keep a 130-bed shelter open 24 hours a day. Earlier this summer, the city and Sutter Health chipped in to open the doors at a Volunteers of America shelter around the clock as well.
There’s hope at City Hall that Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg will bring even more focus to the issue. Steinberg helped craft a deal at the Capitol that will funnel $2 billion from a tax he authored on the wealthy to a fund for housing the state’s homeless and mentally ill. Sacramento could be in line for millions from that pot.
Still, while there’s some reason for optimism, evidence of how intractable the homeless problem remains abounds in Sacramento. Small homeless camps continue to pop up in new places, from Winn Park and Land Park to the underpasses of the W-X freeway.
What’s more, there are some nervous people at City Hall who are staring at the calendar. Golden 1 Center is set to open in two weeks. When it does, thousands of people from the suburbs will visit downtown.
“You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression,” said Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents downtown.
Downtown advocates are hopeful the big crowds expected on arena-event nights will make the homeless population seem less visible. They’re also urging patience: Many of the blocks surrounding Golden 1 Center are vacant today, but are in the midst of transformation. When those blocks are filled in with restaurants, shops and apartments, the environment around the arena will seem less sketchy.
Michael Ault, head of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, said businesses “are not worried at all” about arena visitors getting scared away by homeless people. That’s not to say some business owners aren’t frustrated by a perceived lack of progress on the issue. Campers – not protesters – are back outside City Hall and are once again staking claim to Cesar Chavez Plaza.
The early days and weeks after the arena opens will be “a learning experience” on issues ranging from traffic to street lighting, Ault said.
“I think people will walk away from downtown saying, ‘It looks good’ and have a great experience.”