City Beat

Mayor says it’s time to think small to help Sacramento’s homeless

Sacramento leaders are thinking tiny when it comes to addressing the city’s big homeless population.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg said this week that the city should aggressively pursue a “tiny home” village to shelter dozens of homeless men and women. Steinberg said the model – in which homeless individuals live in clusters of shed-like structures typically around 150 square feet in size – is a safer and more dignified alternative to the homeless tent city debated for years at City Hall.

With Sacramento in dire need of more shelter space, Steinberg said he is issuing a “call to action” to nonprofit service providers and private developers to submit proposals for the design and operation of a tiny home facility. In addition to serving the homeless, the mayor said the concept could fill a gap in the city’s inadequate stock of affordable housing.

“I am bullish on the tiny home concept because it potentially answers a lot of our challenges,” the mayor said in an interview. “Tiny homes can be built quickly, less expensively (than traditional homes) and can also potentially be used as shelter and triage (for the homeless). It’s time we start making something happen.”

The concept comes with some challenges.

Confronted by neighborhood and business concerns, advocates and city officials have struggled for years to find locations for homeless shelters, especially those with an outdoor living component. For a tiny home village of 75 cabins, the preferred site would likely need to be at least 2 acres, limiting where it could be placed within city limits.

It’s also unlikely that a tiny village would be operational in time for the cold winter weather. A survey of Sacramento County’s homeless population conducted in January found an estimated 2,052 people living outdoors – nearly double the number from 2015 – and city officials are scrambling to increase shelter options in Sacramento before the winter arrives.

The cost of a facility is also a concern. Stephen Watters, whose First Step Communities has long advocated for a tiny home complex, said the construction of a community center and about 75 cabins would likely cost around $1.2 million. The land and infrastructure improvements could add another $500,000. It’s unclear how much it would cost to operate the facility annually, but it would likely run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The mayor said public financing may be available for a tiny home facility. The city has over $3 million available to fund homeless services from money approved in this year’s budget by the City Council. Much of that money will likely be spent on shelter space.

“Money is always going to be a challenge, but we’re willing to dive into the breach with any partner that has the ability to help provide housing,” the mayor said.

Steinberg may have multiple responses to his call to action.

Councilman Allen Warren said he is close to submitting a permit application with the city of Sacramento to construct a tiny home complex on a 2.5-acre plot of land on Rio Linda Boulevard in North Sacramento. Warren said he is in escrow to purchase the property from Calvary Christian Center Church.

Warren has previously said his tiny home village would offer small homes for sale at around $100,000. While the councilman said the homes would be targeted toward low-earnings workers and recent college graduates, the prices could be low enough for homeless families with some income.

At the same time, Warren has emerged as the City Council’s chief proponent of a permitted tent city encampment for the homeless. Steinberg prefers the tiny home model, saying the shelters “give a higher level of dignity and comfort to people.” But the mayor said he might support Warren’s idea on a small scale.

“We need all options on the table and being implemented – tent city, tiny homes and a ton more affordable housing units,” Warren said. “It shouldn’t be one or the other. If we don’t have a comprehensive plan to deal with our housing crisis, I will have to push forward with the most efficient and affordable project, which at the moment is tent city.”

Watters, of First Step Communities, said his group is seeking to build a community of about 75 tiny homes – enough to shelter “up to 100 people pretty easily.” The facility would be anchored by a 5,500-square-foot community center providing a kitchen, laundry, restrooms and showers.

Watters’ proposed village would also include on-site medical and social services, and would target chronically homeless individuals.

“They’re the most vulnerable, the ones slipping through the cracks and not getting into shelters,” Watters said. “If we can get them in and get them some medical attention and some services and even some (job) training, we can guide them towards a solution on their own.”

Tiny home villages are sprouting up in other parts of the region.

Students in Elk Grove are building 84-square-foot homes for veterans and are looking for churches or nonprofit organizations to host the cabins.

In Yuba County, 113 people have cycled through the “14 Forward” village since it launched in July 2016. Of those, 22 have moved into permanent housing.

The model was initially met with skepticism from the homeless community, and for a while 14 Forward struggled to fill their beds, even after homeless encampments were dispersed.

“We were told by our own assessment team don’t expect them to stick around,” said Russ Brown, a spokesman for Yuba County. “(Homeless individuals) are not used to being in a shelter. They are used to being in the open.”

But the county now has a waiting list 150 people deep to get into 40 slots, Brown said.

While in the camp, residents receive training and have access to transportation to medical appointments and job interviews.

After overcoming the initial trust issue, the issue now is finding suitable housing once residents are ready to move out, Brown said.

“Part of the problem is the availability of affordable housing,” Brown said. “It’s been a real battle.”

Ryan Lillis: 916-321-1085, @Ryan_Lillis

Related stories from Sacramento Bee