Viewpoints

Sacramento has a homelessness crisis. Here’s a cheaper, quicker and better solution

Sacramento’s County’s 2019 point-in-time count of the number of homeless people living outside or in shelters, completed in January, was just released and, predictably, showed a 19 percent increase in the number of homeless people in Sacramento.

Seventy percent of the 5,570 counted were living outside, unsheltered, not only along the American River Parkway, but also on city and county property in the middle of the Sacramento and in public places on popular streets.

The recent occupation of a large lot on Stockton Boulevard, which was broken up by Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies on May 1, is a good example of overall failure of a public policy to address homelessness. Dozens of people were forced off a large, unused piece of public property onto the streets in the neighborhood, with many still in the area but even more tenuous in their survival as they squeeze onto grass strips and sidewalks without trash disposal, drinking water and toilets.

Opinion

How it makes sense to evict houseless people from unused public property (and trash their belongings) – when there are no alternatives for them – is beyond us. Certainly it doesn’t make sense economically.

We can sustain communities of houseless people, as Safe Ground Sacramento has been saying for years, for next to nothing. We can provide clean water and sanitation, pick up trash as we do for any neighborhood and involve volunteers, non-profits and the faith community in providing supportive services. This will be far more humane and efficient than the harsh but futile efforts of ill-equipped law enforcement officers diverted from their proper role in our neighborhoods.

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Certainly it doesn’t make sense from a moral perspective. As a society, we must face that even the proposals advanced by the new administration under Gov. Gavin Newsom will not house the millions in poverty in our state. And while these plans are implemented as an interim – if you will, “emergency” measure – we must deal with the hardship and the public health dangers faced by the thousands now on the streets and in parks and public spaces. Staffed “emergency” barracks, now proposed as temporary shelters for a fraction of the total houseless population at unbelievable expense, cannot solve this crisis.

What we need is permission to erect tents or other modest dwellings on public property, or even on private property where it’s now illegal for homeless people to camp. Groups of houseless people can and will organize with the help of organizations such as Safe Ground Sacramento, Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee and the Poor People’s Campaign, as well as other organizations and faith leaders.

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We are ready to step up. We can support the construction of peaceful communities where people govern themselves. Admission and participation agreements will allow houseless people to assemble, provide security, take on responsibility, address their individual problems, reconnect with their families or qualify for benefits – and move on with their lives.

We need to offer the first step off the streets, and all the city or county has to do is say, “OK, let’s give it a try.” We’ll do our damnedest to see safe grounds flourish. We know it can work, as it has in Seattle, Portland and other cities.

The May 1 eradication of the Stockton Boulevard community shocked even Sacramento County Supervisor Patrick Kennedy. While he acknowledged that he told the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office they could “go ahead” and do a “clean-up,” he did not envision 30 sheriff SUVs and deputies in riot gear forcing people to move, citing them and bringing in teams to dispose of the belongings left behind.

Sacramento County supervisors and City Council members have been asked by a coalition of over 20 groups involved in housing and homeless issues to get the city and county to support self-governing communities of homeless people. Let’s not be the last city to let homeless people help themselves.

Mark E. Merin is a lawyer and president of Safe Ground, Sacramento, a 501 (c)(3) non-profit corporation. Faye Wilson Kennedy is a part of the Sacramento Poor People’s Campaign and is co-chair of the California Poor People’s Campaign.
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