California Forum

Let Sacramento’s homeless sleep in peace

Danny Rasmussen, 69, has lived along the American River for 15 years and was flooded out of his campsite in December.
Danny Rasmussen, 69, has lived along the American River for 15 years and was flooded out of his campsite in December. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

On a given night in Sacramento County more than 2,600 residents can be counted living homeless. We have just 700 year-round emergency beds in the region and 207 seasonal beds for the colder winter months.

That leaves about 1,700 men, women and children to find transitional housing (which is being phased out), to seek affordable housing in our deeply stressed market, to stay in motels frequently infested by bedbugs or – as is often the case – to spend evenings where they can: in tents, cars, parks and alleys.

These folks are often hassled by police and park rangers while trying to rest. In 2015, Sacramento County park rangers gave out almost 1,300 citations for illegal camping. It is a rule broken almost exclusively by sleeping homeless residents.

It’s obvious the homelessness crisis is larger than we can immediately address. That’s why Sacramento must revisit and repeal the anti-camping ordinance, at the very least until we have enough services and housing available.

In December 2015, homeless residents fed up with harassment by rangers and cops forced the right-to-rest issue by setting up a camp outside Sacramento City Hall. They believed that, without adequate options or services in the region, they should have a right to find a safe space to sleep at night. Their opponents disagreed.

City Council members joined forces with the Downtown Sacramento Partnership in defiance of the homeless community. They deflected the immediate issue of inadequate services and lack of opportunity to sleep, and tried to change the conversation.

Repealing the anti-camping ordinance was not a long-term solution to homelessness in Sacramento, they argued, and it was in place as a public health safeguard.

This argument mystified protesters and advocates. Of course repealing the ordinance would not serve as a long-term solution to homelessness. Who said it would?

They were simply saying that homeless residents were stuck between a rock and a hard place. There were far more folks on the streets than options provided by the city and county. So where could they sleep at night without getting ticketed? What could they do?

Remember that 2,600 estimate? Last spring, the head of Sacramento Steps Forward – the group tasked by the county to help homeless residents find housing – estimated that number could be as high as 5,000.

If emergency provider statistics are any indicator, we’re failing those who need us most.

Mustard Seed, Sacramento’s emergency school for children experiencing homelessness, reports enrollment double that of previous years. In November, 24 of the 52 families with children enrolled were sleeping in cars or outside. County officials later gave them motel vouchers.

Maryhouse, a daytime drop-in center for women experiencing homelessness, served 4,048 women, children and single fathers in 2016 – a 21 percent increase from 2015. Most of them slept outside.

City officials and business leaders need to do the math, and then realize that these are real human beings with real needs. One of those needs is rest.

Regarding public health concerns, homeless residents experience health issues – physical and mental – that arise from living on the streets. That crisis is here.

If officials and business interests believe repealing the law will create public health issues, the onus is on them to show how. A repeal of the ordinance will not result in pandemonium. It will result in folks getting some much-needed rest.

Last spring, Councilman Steve Hansen said, “We want to solve this problem, but we can’t allow people to camp in alleys, camp on the sides of houses, urinate and defecate wherever they want to.”

So tell us, then: What can they do? In a region with inadequate resources, where can our neighbors go tonight to find housing or shelter that is somewhat safe, somewhat warm, where they can rest?

Dave Kempa is an adjunct professor of journalism who has covered homelessness in the Sacramento region for more than four years. He can be contacted at dave.kempa@gmail.com.

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