City Beat

Homeless rights lawyer to create tent city in downtown Sacramento

Rows of tents fill an authorized lot at Tent City 5 in the Interbay neighborhood of Seattle on Feb. 25, 2016. Sacramento officials toured the camp and are considering a similar model here.
Rows of tents fill an authorized lot at Tent City 5 in the Interbay neighborhood of Seattle on Feb. 25, 2016. Sacramento officials toured the camp and are considering a similar model here.

Advocates of a city-sanctioned homeless encampment said Monday they will erect a camp of 20 to 30 tents on a downtown Sacramento lot and threatened to sue the city if their application for a permit is denied.

Attorney Mark Merin said he will seek a city permit in the coming days for a homeless “tent city” on a plot of land he owns at 12th and C streets. The lot was the site of a weeks-long protest of homeless campers in 2009 that ended after Mayor Kevin Johnson pledged to dedicate more attention to homelessness and explore a sanctioned tent city. A temporary camp dubbed “Stake Down” was allowed at the site for one week in 2013.

Merin said he and other activists with the “Safe Ground” movement are working with the Interfaith Council of Greater Sacramento, a local contingent of faith leaders, to establish the homeless site within a few weeks. He said the group’s “litigation strategy” is to seek the operation of a tent city under federal religious freedom laws.

The tent city would mirror what Safe Ground has sought to establish for years in Sacramento: a self-governed homeless camp with direct links to services for residents. Merin said the camp at 12th and C streets is expected to be in place for six months. “It’s immediate, it gets people off the street, it provides security and allows them to access services,” Merin said.

But the plan is likely to face opposition from city leaders.

Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents downtown and is serving on a City Council subcommittee on homelessness, said Merin’s “threat of litigation is not compelling to force us to do it.”

“The council is in the midst of a process for identifying quality solutions to this set of issues,” Hansen said. “I anticipate the residents who are already heavily impacted by the homeless folks in that neighborhood will be significantly opposed to this. This is a power play from Mr. Merin’s standpoint without regard to anyone who lives or does business in that area.”


Merin’s permit request will likely be filed as the Sacramento City Council considers three variations of a sanctioned homeless camp among a long list of options to tackle one of the city’s most pressing social challenges.

The City Council subcommittee released a report Monday detailing options that range from a self-governed encampment to facilities connected more directly to Sacramento Steps Forward, the county’s primary homeless services coordinator. The camps could be in the form of tent cities, villages of small cabins or indoor “triage centers,” according to the report.

City officials have said they have little desire to allow autonomous tent cities in Sacramento, seeking instead to focus on facilities that would provide on-site services and are designed to transition homeless people into permanent shelter. Roughly 20 city officials traveled to Seattle in February to tour that city’s network of sanctioned tent cities. Those facilities are designed to move residents into housing, although it’s unclear how successful they’ve been since launching last year.

The local tent city options are included in a list of 21 short-, medium- and long-term ideas developed by a subcommittee of City Council members and homeless services providers that has been meeting for nearly four months. Johnson formed the committee amid a weeks-long protest at City Hall of homeless rights activists calling for an end to the city’s anti-camping law.

The report will be presented Tuesday to the full City Council at a special hearing. Council members are expected to provide direction on how to proceed at that meeting.

Councilman Jay Schenirer, who chairs the subcommittee, said the city is not moving away from its mission of creating more permanent housing for the homeless. But with roughly 1,000 homeless people living outdoors every night in Sacramento County, the city is considering a long list of options to “manage the challenge,” he said.

“Anything we do has to be part of a larger system,” he said.

Some of the options would require significant cost and planning, according to the subcommittee report. Those include expanding the stock of 24-hour shelter beds, adding shelter options for homeless individuals with pets or substance abuse histories, and staffing city ambulances with mental health clinicians and homeless outreach workers.

The city could also expand a newly adopted pilot program to provide a monitored bathroom in the River District, north of downtown, and add police officers to citywide “impact teams” that connect homeless individuals with services and sweep abandoned encampments.

“What this (report) reflects is that there’s no silver bullet,” Hansen said.

The subcommittee report raises concerns with allowing a self-governed tent city, saying city leaders in Placerville reported an influx of homeless campers near a sanctioned facility in that city that created “some very serious issues.”

Two other options detailed in the report seem more likely to receive City Council approval.

In one, the city and Sacramento Steps Forward could create what’s called a “crisis triage center” where homeless residents are provided on-site social services and have their case histories entered into Steps Forward’s database.

The facility would be modeled after San Francisco’s Navigation Center, which opened in the city’s Mission District in March 2015. That center allows homeless people to bring pets with them into the shelter and leave their belongings during the day – options that are not available at most temporary shelters.

A San Francisco report last month said 399 homeless people had moved through the Navigation Center since it opened and more than two-thirds had been placed in housing or treatment facilities.

The other camp option would be the creation of a village of 100 “tiny homes.” That model, pushed by local organization First Step Communities, would also connect residents with on-site services and be designed as a temporary, transitional shelter.

“If we don’t have housing on the back end, it just becomes a shelter, and that’s not what we want to do,” said Councilman Jeff Harris, a subcommittee member.

The subcommittee report notes neighborhood and business opposition would likely create a challenge to all the encampment options.

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