City Beat

Sacramento looks to Seattle for ideas on homeless tent cities

While this homeless encampment near downtown is closing this week at the request of the landowner, Seattle has created several city-sanctioned camps featuring similar “tiny houses” – miniature shed-like structures. Sacramento is considering comparable structures.
While this homeless encampment near downtown is closing this week at the request of the landowner, Seattle has created several city-sanctioned camps featuring similar “tiny houses” – miniature shed-like structures. Sacramento is considering comparable structures. The Seattle Times

Sacramento City Council members and top city officials will travel Friday to explore Seattle’s network of authorized tent cities for the homeless as they consider creating a similar “safe ground” here.

The idea has been floated for years, but neighborhood and political opposition has kept it from becoming a reality. With Sacramento’s homeless population becoming more visible – and a protest of homeless-rights activists outside City Hall nearing a third month – city officials have begun to give the idea more serious thought.

Last year, Seattle approved the creation of three homeless tent cities on public or private land. Two of the facilities are operating and Mayor Ed Murray – who late last year declared a state of emergency in the face of an exploding homeless population – approved the site for a third encampment this week.

Other homeless encampments have been allowed to operate throughout the Seattle region for more than a decade, mostly on the properties of houses of worship. But the most recent wave of camps are the first to be permitted and supported directly by city resources. Seattle provides waste management at the camps, pays rent on the land and has contracts with organizations to provide social services at the sites.

Sacramento Councilman Jay Schenirer, who is chairing a City Council task force on homelessness, said he is particularly interested “to see how the neighborhoods and the communities (in Seattle) work with the folks who are running these homeless programs.”

“That’s been one of our largest challenges,” he said. “If we wanted to do a safe ground type of venue, where do we site it and how do you work with the neighborhoods?”

Schenirer said city officials are taking the prospect of allowing a permitted homeless encampment seriously because “we have to take everything seriously.” He said any facility that is allowed here must be transitional, meaning it must connect residents to services and act as a springboard into permanent housing.

Schenirer is scheduled to be joined by fellow council members Steve Hansen, Jeff Harris and Eric Guerra. City Manager John Shirey, Police Chief Sam Somers Jr., a representative of Mayor Kevin Johnson’s office and executives with the region’s homeless services organizations are also expected to travel to Seattle.

The itinerary was arranged by attorney Mark Merin, who has led the campaign for a safe ground here for years and has filed lawsuits against the city on behalf of homeless campers in the past.

“If we end up looking at something like (the tent cities), we have to look at what’s the end game that they’re using them for,” Guerra said. “Are they looking at (transitioning camp residents into) permanent housing? Because at the end of the day, that’s the big picture.”

Hansen said he is keeping an open mind to the tent city model as well, but he wants to see data that measure “qualitatively or quantitatively how well these work.”

“We really have to be oriented around long-term solutions,” he said. “How do we provide for folks not just in the moment, but over the course of the long term?”

The two city-sanctioned camps in Seattle hold a combined 80 people in the Interbay and Ballard neighborhoods northwest of downtown. The third camp – near a light-rail station in the city’s Rainier Valley neighborhood – will start with 33 tents and a dozen “tiny houses.” Those shedlike structures are similar in design to shelters under consideration for the Sacramento model.

Under the Seattle ordinance, the camps can each accommodate up to 100 people, must be operated by a service provider and can’t be on land zoned for residential use. They are permitted to stay in place for up to two years at a time.

The Seattle Times reported that drugs and alcohol will be prohibited in the new camp approved this week, sex offenders will not be allowed to live there and camp residents will be tasked with providing security. Families with children, individuals and pets will be allowed at the camp, the Times reported.

A one-night count in January in King County, where Seattle is the largest city, found more than 4,500 individuals living on the street. That number was an increase of nearly 20 percent from the previous year. Large, unsanctioned camps have appeared throughout the city and two people were shot to death last month at a notorious camp dubbed “The Jungle” south of downtown.

In Sacramento, neighborhoods throughout the region have noticed an increase in homeless people. The most recent comprehensive survey – in January 2015 – counted more than 2,600 homeless people in Sacramento County.

While city officials have largely dismissed the protesters outside City Hall as a distraction from the long-term strategy of finding permanent housing for the homeless, those activists have kept the issue in the spotlight and the Seattle trip is a result of that discussion. The protesters are demanding a repeal of the city’s anti-camping ordinance that city officials argue is a vital safeguard for the public health.

It’s unclear if the creation of a safe ground here would end the protest, but it could help ease tensions, homeless people said Wednesday outside City Hall.

“It would be a step forward, and it’s a way maybe to defuse the situation out here,” said Jimmy Aycock, 58, who said he has been with the protesters since they set up camp.

Vella Tejeda, 20, who is also homeless, said a safe ground model would only work if it’s inclusive of women, people with disabilities, families and homeless pet owners.

“These places discriminate sometimes,” she said. “It will make people feel safe, but it should be for everybody.”

Ryan Lillis: 916-321-1085, @Ryan_Lillis