Don’t jeopardize legal homeless camp with an illegal one

By the Editorial Board

April 26, 2016 04:16 PM

Sacramento homeless service coordinator Emily Halcon speaks to a City Council subcommittee on homelessness in February, discussing service programs and potential for creating a safe-ground camp. José Luis Villegas jvillegas@sacbee.com
Sacramento homeless service coordinator Emily Halcon speaks to a City Council subcommittee on homelessness in February, discussing service programs and potential for creating a safe-ground camp. José Luis Villegas jvillegas@sacbee.com

There’s a wise saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Someone should mention that to attorney Mark Merin, who for the second time in a decade, has decided to break Sacramento’s anti-camping law and erect a tent city for homeless people on a downtown lot.

He and members of the Safe Ground movement say that 20 to 30 tents will go up within weeks and stay there for six months. We imagine portable toilets will follow, much to the consternation of neighbors.

The lot, at 12th and C streets, is owned by Merin, who has made a career out of defending poor people and twisting the arms of the powerful.

Many will remember that it was Merin who, back in 2009, let homeless people pitch tents on another lot one block over, leading to a weeks-long cat-and-mouse game of police rousting campers, seizing their tents, and nonprofits replacing them. It also led to Merin getting sued by the city.

The camp was eventually disbanded and the lawsuit dropped.

This time, Merin says he will be the one doing the suing if the city denies his application for a permit for the camp, something that’s almost certain to happen. It is, as Councilman Steve Hansen put it, “a power play” – and an unwise one at that.

Forcing the city to authorize a tent city didn’t work in 2009 and it’s unlikely to work in 2016. The only difference is, in 2016, safe-ground advocates have a lot more to lose, namely angering a City Council that is finally coming around to the idea of letting homeless people gather in a yet-to-be-determined part of Sacramento.

On Tuesday, the council began weighing the findings of a subcommittee appointed to find short-term and long-term solutions to homelessness. Among those findings are options for types of city-sanctioned camps.

One is of the self-governed variety that safe-ground advocates favor – and that caused so many headaches for residents who lived near Merin’s lot back in 2009. There’s also a triage center, a popular option linked to the county’s homeless services coordinator, Sacramento Steps Forward, and communities of tiny homes rather than tents.

No matter the format, though, advocates are more likely than ever to get the council to support what they’ve been demanding for years — a safe space for homeless people to rest without fear of getting arrested. All they have to do is wait. And the council must act quickly to implement solutions both big and small.

A tent city, like a triage center, is no substitute for housing and, therefore, no solution for homelessness. But, given the constant shortage of shelter space, it is worth a try, if only as a pilot program to help get vulnerable people off the streets immediately. To jeopardize that with a premature stunt is the definition of insanity.