Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Tent cities for homeless won’t fix Sacramento’s problem

Sacramento considers Seattle's homeless camp model

Seattle has granted permits for three tent cities – temporary encampments of up to 100 homeless men, women and children that are designed to connect the residents with affordable housing options and social services. The camps operate under strict
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Seattle has granted permits for three tent cities – temporary encampments of up to 100 homeless men, women and children that are designed to connect the residents with affordable housing options and social services. The camps operate under strict

Sacramento looks poised to approve its first city-supported homeless camp.

The City Council votes appear to be there, if public comments from council members are any indication. The people agitating for homeless camps have been at it for years, outlasting opponents until the makeup of the council changed in their favor.

What pushed this terrible idea over the top has been the months of relentless protests within the council chambers. Protesters have grown increasingly profane, showing up each week to attack the city’s anti-camping ordinance.

“You guys aren’t doing your job,” a man who identified himself as James said to council members at the Feb. 16 meeting. “So I’m going to urge people to build riot shields, gas masks, ballistic armor, and next time your cops want to come out and raid, we’ll meet them. I’m from Seattle; we meet our cops head on. We meet them (expletive) head on. ... I don’t care. I have no respect for your authority.”

These type of comments have become routine at City Council meetings. Council members who disagree or ask for respect and order find themselves on the receiving end of invective.

Councilman Steve Hansen said he has been abused verbally for expressing skepticism over the idea of a homeless tent city in Sacramento.

“I’m now the cold-hearted bastard,” Hansen said. “(As a child), I was in a shelter with my mom when her boyfriend beat her up, but I get called names because I won’t give in.”

A few weeks ago, protesters blocked council members from exiting an underground garage at City Hall. The members were trapped down there for 45 minutes. Also a few weeks ago, a Sacramento police sergeant and four officers found that their personal information – addresses, phone numbers – had been posted on a website. The same thing happened to some council members in January. Much of the personal information posted online was inaccurate, but that’s beside the point.

These pressure tactics clearly have borne fruit. Last week, a large delegation from Sacramento trooped up to Seattle to check out city-sanctioned tent camps. The group included four City Council members, the city manager, deputy city manager, police chief and others. Sacramento Bee reporter Ryan Lillis attended as well. Supporters of the camps in Seattle said the tent cities are designed to funnel homeless people into permanent housing and connect them with services, although, as Lillis recently wrote: “it’s too early to tell whether that’s happening.”

Sacramento has a less acute homeless issue than other large California cities. According to numbers compiled by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, San Francisco, San Jose and even smaller cities such as Salinas have larger homeless populations.

Ryan Loofbourrow, who runs Sacramento Steps Forward – the coordinating agency for homeless services in the county – said that on any given night there are about 2,600 individuals experiencing homelessness in the county. The Salinas/Monterey area has roughly 3,000, according to HUD. San Jose has 6,556. San Francisco is at 6,775. San Diego has nearly 9,000.

Loofbourrow and his agency are making inroads toward getting people off the street. In the last 90 days, SSF has interviewed more than 1,600 homeless people, Loofbourrow said. By the end of March, SSF will be placing most of these people into housing.

There currently isn’t enough housing to get every homeless person in Sacramento under a roof of some kind. Because of that, the appeal of permitted tent cities is clear. But for the last year, SSF has made housing and services a priority, as have community leaders, law enforcement and others.

Tent cities – which also can include temporary huts or cabins – are the antithesis of federal policies that make permanent housing a priority. They siphon time and resources away from better solutions.

It’s ironic that Sacramento leaders went to study Seattle because the Emerald City was excoriated for its homeless policies by the same consultant they hired to deal with their issues. According to HUD, Seattle/King County has more than 10,000 people living without permanent shelter – far more than Sacramento.

“Encampments are a real distraction from investing in solutions,” said Barbara Poppe in The Seattle Times recently. Poppe has been hired by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray to consult on homeless issues. For four years, she was the point person on homeless issues for President Barack Obama.

“You can see it takes a lot of energy to get them running, and they don’t solve the problem,” Poppe wrote. “You still have people who are visibly homeless, living outdoors.”

Though his job calls for staying out of politics, Loofbourrow said: “We’d like to get people placed into permanent housing.”

That’s the idea that Sacramento city, county, law enforcement and surrounding communities signed on for when selecting SSF as the the primary agency to deal with homelessness. Why break from the model that was chosen but hasn’t had a chance to work yet? Why divert from a plan that attacks the root cause of homelessness to open a camp that keeps people living outside?

John Shirey, Sacramento’s city manager, told me he sees nothing wrong with studying a tent-city model. OK, but already there are some disturbing signs. When addressing a Sacramento City Council subcommittee on Monday, Stephen Watters – executive director of First Step Communities, which is advocating for a village of tiny homes for the homeless – indicated where a sanctioned camp might be located.

He told the committee his group is reviewing sites in three City Council districts: District 2 in North Sacramento; District 5, which covers Oak Park, Curtis Park, Hollywood Park and other neighborhoods south of downtown; and District 8 in Meadowview.

In other words: They potentially want to stick homeless camps in North Sacramento, Oak Park and Meadowview. In poor areas next to poor people who can’t fight back.

Such an idea would be a capitulation to advocates who have been trying to do this for years. It’s been a two-pronged attack. There are those who scream and threaten at City Council meetings. And then there is attorney Mark Merin and Sister Libby Fernandez, the Catholic nun who runs Loaves & Fishes – the largest homeless charity in Sacramento.

Merin and Fernandez use more polite language than some protesters at City Hall. In their own ways, they are both caring and upstanding people. But they’ve been at this for years. They have been the respectable faces of a movement that clearly benefits from bully tactics.

In 2009, Merin and Fernandez teamed up with a large group of homeless people to illegally camp next to the property of a 71-year-old man and his family near downtown Sacramento.

They were trying to make a point – the same point they are making now – about camping within the city limits. It really didn’t matter that the neighbor, Pedro Fernandez, deeply objected to having nearly 40 tents placed behind the modest home where he had lived for more than 30 years.

Merin and Fernandez cared about their issue and that was about it. They didn’t have the votes on the City Council back then to win. The camp eventually was removed, but not before making a humble family feel violated by those making a political point.

Now they seem to have the votes. Jay Schenirer, one of the most influential City Council members, has been supportive of Fernandez for years. So has Mayor Kevin Johnson. Councilman Jeff Harris seems supportive after going to Seattle last week. That’s a good start to a council majority. But all of Sacramento will lose if a tent city is approved.

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