Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Tent city stunt distracts from real issue of helping Sacramento’s homeless

Vincent Merriweather, 4, plays with his toy truck at Tent City 5, one of the city sanctioned homeless encampments located in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood, Thursday, February 25, 2016.
Vincent Merriweather, 4, plays with his toy truck at Tent City 5, one of the city sanctioned homeless encampments located in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood, Thursday, February 25, 2016.

Pay no attention to the sideshow.

A civil rights attorney, in partnership with a Catholic nun, are sympathetic figures to be sure – especially when they threaten to sue City Hall in the name of the homeless while citing federal religious freedom laws.

They have to have righteousness on their side, don’t they? City Hall is always wrong, isn’t it? We aren’t doing enough to help the homeless in the state capital, are we?

Again, pay no attention to the sideshow.

Attorney Mark Merin and his ally, Sister Libby Fernandez, have been pushing their homeless agenda for years. Their latest effort – a threat to sue Sacramento if Merin’s plan for a homeless tent city on his property at 12th and C streets is not approved by the city – is a headline grabber in the short term. That’s the whole idea.

By forcing the issue in this manner, they foster the myth that they – and they alone – have the right plan to help people living on Sacramento’s streets. It ignores the hard work of many individuals, including city officials and other service providers, to explore and identify real and lasting strategies to help the city’s homeless population.

City-sanctioned tent camps are an unproven strategy and may not be the right idea for our community as a whole. In Sacramento, as in many cities across the nation, the emphasis is on getting homeless people into permanent housing and into supportive care that keeps them off the streets.

Merin’s threat to sue Sacramento comes as the city engages in a months-long effort to widen Sacramento’s homeless efforts. The city hosted another in a series of hearings on this issue Tuesday. Led by Councilman Jay Schenirer, the city is looking at a variety of approaches to help more people.

The City Council is considering three variations of sanctioned homeless camps. Tent cities are on the list (although the council has expressed serious reservations about them). So are “tiny homes” that would be made available to vulnerable people. Indoor “triage centers,” which would shelter homeless people temporarily before connecting them with supportive care, also are an option.

The city also is studying expanding city shelters, offering more housing vouchers and creating more space in countywide programs offering short-term and long-term housing for homeless people.

Schenirer and a large delegation of Sacramento officials – four council members, the city manager, police chief and others – traveled to Seattle in February with Merin to check out the city-sanctioned tent camps there. As my colleague Ryan Lillis, who joined them on the trip, recently noted: “Those facilities are designed to move residents into housing, although it’s unclear how successful they’ve been since launching last year.”

City officials aren’t opposed to the idea of more diverse methods for helping homeless people. But now is the time to engage in meaningful discussions, not distract from the dialogue with threats. This kind of complex issue demands more than just specious solutions.

“We’re not as a city going to solve the homeless problem,” Schenirer said. “We can manage or mitigate it. We’re undergoing an honest attempt to look hard at what we can do. Unfortunately, (Merin’s) threat upstages three months of work by a lot of people who don’t agree with him. …Whatever (Sacramento) does has to lead people to permanent housing.”

Merin and Fernandez’s tent city idea has been floated before. In 2009, Merin allowed homeless tents to be pitched on his property on C Street. As now, the aim was to attack Sacramento’s anti-camping ordinance by generating controversy and public sympathy.

Unfortunately, an innocent family was in the path of the protest. Pedro Hernandez is 78 and lives on 13th Street with his 79-year-old wife, Graciela. In 2009, the Hernandezes felt victimized by Merin and the people he allowed to camp on his property adjacent to their home.

You could easily hear the noise from the tent encampment in Hernandez’s home. He and his wife were angered that the tents remained for roughly three weeks in a standoff with Merin.

“Mrs. Hernandez is again in the hospital, with heart trouble that began when Mr. Merin first tried to install a large … camp adjacent to her home and garden,” said Aldon Bolanos, lawyer for the Hernandez family.

In 2011, an arbitrator ruled that Merin had to pay $10,500 in damages to the Hernandez family, Bolanos said.

Merin’s latest proposal is for a different C Street parcel from the 2009 dispute, but Bolanos said it’s still close to where the couple live. “What Merin is doing is very unfair to working-class people who have to deal with the homeless population more than anyone else does,” he said.

Merin did not return my call on Tuesday. In media interviews Monday, he said the camp would accommodate 20 to 30 tents and would be in place for around six months.

Merin said he would sue if his application to open a tent city is denied. Merin recruited the Interfaith Council of Greater Sacramento to be the applicant. On Monday, he said the “litigation strategy” is to seek operation of the camp under federal religious freedom laws. Presumably, it would be on the grounds that the Interfaith Council would not be able to fulfill its religious mission of tending to the homeless.

Jon Fish, president of the Interfaith Council, said his group agreed to be the applicant for the homeless camp because it would like to see the application move forward. However, on Tuesday, Fish said his group would not be a party to a lawsuit and would not operate the camp if it were approved by the city.

Kevin Eckery, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, said the church would also not be a party to any lawsuit. “For us, it’s about permanent and transitional housing that gets people off the streets,” Eckery said. “We believe in that very strongly.”

Sacramento has made strides helping homeless people and connecting them with services. Sacramento Steps Forward, the lead agency in county homeless services, has made a dent in finding housing for homeless veterans.

By housing people in apartments across the county, the load is shared by all communities rather than putting a camp in one. SSF is trying to get other communities – Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova, Citrus Heights – to participate in countywide efforts.

These are significant efforts undermined by threats and sideshows that do little more than distract from the hard work that lies ahead.

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