Is a tent city for homeless campers coming to your neighborhood?

For the first time, city leaders appear more than serious about sanctioning encampments for homeless Sacramentans.

A contingent of council members and city officials visited “safe ground” style homeless camps in Seattle this past Friday. And on Monday, at a special City Hall meeting on homelessness with more than 200 in attendance, stakeholders discussed the need for “tent city” camps and services such as 24-hour crisis centers for homeless people.

Councilman Jeff Harris, who last month visited both Seattle and San Francisco to learn more about homeless services (and snapped the above photo), said on Monday that he came away impressed by the Emerald City’s camp.

“It provided stability, it provided safety. A person could actually leave their stuff there and know it would be there at the end of the day” while they were at work, he observed.

The councilman is part of a special homelessness committee with fellow members Jay Schenirer and Steve Hansen. They hope to make recommendations to the mayor and larger council regarding homelessness policy in mid-April.

Harris—whose district includes multiple areas uniquely impacted by homelessness, including near Loaves & Fishes—said that Seattle’s homeless camps are self-governed, residents take on chores and elect leaders, and even clean up in the surrounding neighborhood. But he also conceded that they aren’t lovely additions to the urban tapestry.

“They look like ragtag tent cities, that’s exactly what they are, an eyesore,” he said. “But they serve a pretty vital function.”

Its been more than seven years since Oprah Winfrey’s TV show converged on Sacramento to tell the world about the city’s homelessness crisis. Her crew highlighted one of the area’s first unauthorized tent cities, just north of Midtown. Since, numerous other illegal encampments have popped up, but each has been shut down by local governments. Last month, SN&R counted nearly five dozen camp sites on the American River Parkway near Northgate Boulevard.

Attorney and homeless advocate Mark Merin urged council on Monday to declare a homeless-shelter crisis and sanction encampments. He was the one who organized last week’s Seattle visit, and estimated that it would cost $120,000 to operate a safe-ground encampment for 100 people for an entire year.

The city estimates that it spends about $14 million annually on homelessness. A majority of the homeless services purse strings are held by the county.

Enforcement of the city’s anti-camping ordinance was also a major topic of discussion during Monday night’s meeting. Many Right to Rest protesters occupying City Hall grounds sat in the audience and applauded as homeless stakeholders asked council members to repeal the law.

“We really have to stop arresting people for camping,” Sister Libby Fernandez of Loaves & Fishes told the committee. “It is morally wrong and a tremendous cost to people who are homeless.”

Shahera Hyatt, who spoke on behalf of the Right to Rest protesters, said the anti-camping ordinance “actually makes [homelessness] worse” by forcing homeless people into a criminal-justice system that cant serve their needs. She claimed to know a man who had been cited 36 times under the anti-camping ordinance.

This past Tuesday marked the 12th week of City Hall’s Right to Rest occupation.
Some advocates think a solution might be a 24-hour “triage center” for homeless people: Instead of citing people on the street for illegal camping, they could be taken to an all-night shelter, where they could rest and obtain case management.

San Francisco operates a similar crisis shelter, but it is pricey, according to Sacramento’s Homeless Services Coordinator Emily Halcon, with beds costing twice as much to run as a normal shelter. Councilman Harris called them “very expensive … but really helping a tough-to-serve population.”

The city committee on homelessness will hold four more nonpublic meetings with stakeholders before going in front of the full council in April. They’ve yet to discuss possible sites for any tent-city-style encampments, but rumored locations include Oak Park, north Sacramento, Greenhaven and under Highway 50 near Broadway.

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