Sacramento's new mayor said city and county leaders plan a joint meeting on Jan. 31 to address issues of homelessness. "Stay tuned," he said Christmas Eve during an appearance at the city's new homeless warming center in Southside Park. Anita Chabria The Sacramento Bee
Sacramento's new mayor said city and county leaders plan a joint meeting on Jan. 31 to address issues of homelessness. "Stay tuned," he said Christmas Eve during an appearance at the city's new homeless warming center in Southside Park. Anita Chabria The Sacramento Bee

City Beat

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City Beat

A death blow for homeless tent city in Sacramento?

By Ryan Lillis

rlillis@sacbee.com

January 08, 2017 12:00 PM

As the rivers keep rising, more and more homeless men and women move out of the woods and on to city streets. Sacramento’s homeless crisis is as severe as ever.

A group of advocates pushing for a permitted homeless “safe ground” continue their campaign. But it sounds like they don’t have any friends left at City Hall.

Attorney Mark Merin, Safe Ground Sacramento and the Interfaith Council of Greater Sacramento quietly submitted an application with the city of Sacramento in October to establish a tent city for homeless campers near the Sacramento Army Depot off Florin Perkins Road. They sought to establish the camp on city-owned property set amid a district of warehouses.

City Manager John Shirey denied Merin’s request in a letter dated Nov. 18, Shirey’s final day in office. He wrote that sanctioned homeless camps “do not align with the city of Sacramento’s commitment to coordinated outreach, assessment, and permanent housing solutions managed under Sacramento Steps Forward,” which is the county’s primary homeless services coordinator.

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Merin said his group has several other sites in mind, but settled on the Army Depot land because it is far from homes and close to job training centers. But it’s also close to Power Inn Road, where the city is trying to grow new businesses and jobs.

“The spot isn’t the problem – we just can’t get permission,” Merin said in an interview. “There are a lot of things that could be done if there were political will.”

That’s always been the issue with the safe-ground movement – it’s been as much about politics as it has sheltering the city’s most vulnerable population.

There was a moment when Merin appeared to have support on the City Council for his plan, after he helped organize a trip for top Sacramento officials last year to Seattle for a tour of that city’s sanctioned tent cities. But the support faded in the months that followed as the City Council was convinced by service providers to instead focus on other solutions, including permanent housing aligned with services and increased indoor shelter hours.

Eric Guerra, the councilman who represents the Army Depot area and one of those who took the trip to Seattle, had expressed an open mind to a tent city during the visit to the Pacific Northwest. He kept that open mind last fall, when he and Merin toured the plot of land out by the Army Depot.

But it sounds like Guerra has made up his mind now.

“I just don’t see it as a productive approach,” he said. “And I think most of my colleagues are leaning in that direction. I appreciate Mark’s pursuit, but (tent cities) will just create a distraction from our very limited time and resources.”

Guerra said he prefers keeping the focus on long-term fixes. Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who has made addressing homelessness a priority, also opposes tent cities, preferring instead to spend his political capital on extending emergency shelter hours on cold nights and long-term strategies like housing.

So what’s Merin’s end game, assuming the city stays the course and keeps the door closed to safe ground? He’s an active, high-profile attorney who has filed lawsuits on behalf of the homeless in the past. But he insists he doesn’t have a deadline for action.

“We’ll be working with Mayor Steinberg and don’t have a date for the filing of any litigation to force acceptance of a permit application,” he said.

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 Ryan LillisThe Sacramento Bee