As homeless rights activists prepare to drive stakes into the ground for a tent city on a downtown Sacramento lot, members of the City Council expressed skepticism for that model of homeless shelter during a special City Hall hearing Tuesday.
Instead, council members were more receptive to a 24-hour triage center that has on-site services and is directly linked to Sacramento Steps Forward, the county’s primary homeless services coordinator. A triage center could be housed inside a large building or take the form of an outdoor encampment.
Some council members also expressed support for a sanctioned village of tiny cabins, a proposal being pushed in Sacramento by First Step Communities, a local homeless advocacy group that has focused on transitional housing structures rather than tents. That model would also include direct pipelines for residents into housing and social services, and has been used in Portland, Ore., and Olympia, Wash.
While the camp models are the most controversial of the many homelessness options under consideration, Sacramento council members reiterated their desire to increase the permanent housing stock as the foundation of the city’s response to one of its most pressing challenges.
“Our focus truly is on long-term solutions, getting people connected with the services they require and finding housing for them,” said Councilman Jeff Harris, a member of a council subcommittee formed earlier this year by Mayor Kevin Johnson to explore options for addressing homelessness.
Johnson formed the panel amid a weeks-long protest at City Hall of homeless rights activists calling for an end to the city’s anti-camping law.
On Monday, attorney Mark Merin said he planned to file a permit request with the city to set up a homeless tent city on a plot he owns at 12th and C streets in downtown. He said the proposal has the backing of the Interfaith Council of Greater Sacramento and that his “litigation strategy” was to establish the camp under the protection of federal religious freedom laws.
Merin said in an interview Tuesday he plans to file a permit request with the city by the end of next week. He said his group plans to establish a tent city on C Street unless the city comes up with an alternative site. No other sites have been formally discussed.
City officials oppose an autonomous tent city that doesn’t connect residents directly with service providers. But Merin said his model, backed by advocacy group Safe Ground, can still be effective by providing stability to homeless individuals while they find their own shelter or connect with family members.
“It provides an alternative for people on the streets,” he said.
Neighborhood opposition is already brewing against Merin’s plan. The tent city site is behind the Sacramento Montessori School, and parents of children at that school have contacted city officials with worries about the camp, said Councilman Steve Hansen, a homeless subcommittee member who represents downtown.
Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, a candidate for mayor, called images of tent cities she’s seen “disturbing.” Instead, she was more receptive to the triage center and “tiny home” village models as long as those facilities include on-site services.
Councilman Jay Schenirer, who chaired the council subcommittee on homelessness, said he was in favor of creating a triage center “as soon as we can.”
“I know it’s an expensive item,” he said. “It’s a really important tool that we can use that meets the needs of the community and gets people off the street. Whether it’s connected with tiny homes or a tent city, to me that’s an open question. But everything we do needs to be part of the larger continuum of care and moving people toward permanent housing.”
Schenirer said he asked City Manager John Shirey to begin researching funding options for the center.
Sacramento officials have toured San Francisco’s Navigation Center, a triage facility inside a former school in the city’s Mission District that has served nearly 400 people since it opened last year. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said in September he planned to spend $3 million to establish a second facility. The center costs an estimated $69 per shelter bed per night to operate.
Sacramento officials said they would likely need to partner with third-party service providers or Sacramento County to fund a triage center here.
Unlike traditional overnight or emergency shelters, the triage centers are designed to serve as transitional housing facilities. Homeless men and women are allowed to bring their pets indoors, can leave their possessions during the day and are connected directly with social and housing services.
Council members also expressed support Tuesday for expanding the geographic reach of Sacramento Steps Forward and adding officers to a Sacramento Police Department “impact team” that focuses on contacting homeless individuals on the street. The council also was supportive of modifying housing voucher programs so that homeless individuals – not just people burdened by rent payments – can qualify for the vouchers.
Other options under consideration include expanding the city’s roster of 24-hour emergency shelter space, finding more shelter space for homeless men and women with pets or histories of substance abuse, and funding new staff on ambulances who have backgrounds in mental health or homeless outreach.