For over a year, homeless rights activists have descended on Sacramento City Hall, demanding an end to the city’s ban on urban camping. They’ve slept on the sidewalk on cold winter nights, staged sit-ins and have been hauled away by police.
After all that, they suddenly have an ally on the City Council.
Councilman Allen Warren surprised his council colleagues Tuesday night by asking for a temporary moratorium on the city’s anti-camping ordinance in some areas of Sacramento. A small group of protesters attending the City Council meeting erupted in cheers when Warren made his request.
“I don’t see any objective rationale for us maintaining a policy that’s not working,” Warren said.
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Warren met with Mayor Darrell Steinberg earlier Tuesday and said he wanted to explore allowing a temporary outdoor or indoor homeless encampment in his North Sacramento district. But Warren took his request a step further during comments at the end of Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, saying he wanted the city manager and city attorney to “bring back language (of a report) that would place a temporary moratorium on the camping ordinance.”
Warren said in an interview he does not support an all-encompassing pause on the camping law, but instead envisions a moratorium applying to specific sites or areas throughout the city.
“It could be citywide, but it would have to be where it’s appropriate,” he said.
The debate over whether to allow temporary homeless camps has waged for years in Sacramento. Civil rights attorney Mark Merin and a group called Safe Ground have tried to establish tent cities on various sites, but have never received city permission.
Steinberg and other top city officials prefer focusing on increasing the city’s stock of indoor shelter space and providing permanent housing for the homeless. The mayor pushed back on Warren’s request Tuesday, angering the protesters, one of whom was escorted out of the council chambers by a police officer after raising her voice.
“I want to thank you for the courage to publicly articulate that nothing is worse than the status quo,” Steinberg told Warren. But he added he would prefer finding more indoor shelters, including the possible use of city-run community centers.
Warren said he has thought about requesting a moratorium on the camping ban “for a long time,” but that the recent storms that forced homeless campers from the banks of rivers and into broader view persuaded him to the push the issue now. He said an administrator at Grant High School told him Tuesday that more than 100 students at the Del Paso Heights campus are homeless. He also cited data showing that more than 700 homeless individuals have died on city streets since 2002.
“I believe, as our mayor has stated, that permanent housing is the solution and I believe our mayor is committed to that,” Warren said. “But we’re not going to do it overnight and we need to have bridges to help us get there.”
Warren said he wants the City Council to discuss suspending the camping ban as early as next week’s council meeting. No other council members have expressed support for lifting the camping ban, meaning Warren faces a tough challenge if the moratorium goes to a council vote.
“I’m not here to make friends,” Warren told The Sacramento Bee.
Councilman Jay Schenirer, who last year led a city task force on homelessness, said, “I don’t think lifting the camping ordinance is a solution for homelessness.”
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“There are public health issues and there are neighborhood issues,” Schenirer said. “If one of my colleagues would like to create an opportunity for a tent city in their district, then that is certainly something the council can discuss. But I would also want to see what the plan is both in a financial and programmatic nature and if it demonstrates how it would align with the overall city goals (to provide permanent shelter).”
Councilman Jeff Harris, another homeless task force member, said he “would never support losing our camping ordinance.”
“I’m not sure (Warren) has analyzed the situation thoroughly,” Harris said. “I have to say I feel the camping ordinance is a management tool. It gives the police the ability to manage crime among the homeless population.”
Warren’s comments thrilled homeless rights activists at City Hall.
“I almost had a heart attack,” activist James “Faygo” Clark said after the meeting. “For one council member to even float the idea of a moratorium, that’s huge.”