Will Tent City Residents Move into Homeless Shelters?

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(Sacramento, CA)
Thursday, March 26, 2009

If you offer extra shelter beds, they will come.  That’s the thinking of Sacramento city officials.  They’re about to pour nearly 900-thousand dollars into creating 150 new beds.  And they hope the residents at the homeless “tent city” along the American River will move right in.  But that might be easier said than done.
Okay, say you’re homeless in Sacramento.  You’d love a place to sleep with a roof over your head, a nice warm meal and … a couple of huge high-definition big-screen TVs.  Where would you go?
McFarland: “The women have a lounge area and the men have a lounge area.” 
Probably here, the winter shelter at Cal Expo.  It’s run by a non-profit group called Volunteers of America, with funding from Sacramento County.  And it can hold more than 150 people.  VOA’s president, Leo McFarland, is giving a tour.
McFarland: “So this is where the women at night can cruise in and watch movies, play with the kids…” 
One piece of the city’s plan to break up the tent city is to move up to a third of the residents here.  The shelter normally would have shut down at the end of March, but now, the city will pay to keep it open through June.  And it’s also paying to add 50 new beds, right outside the main building.  They’ll be housed in temporary structures you might’ve seen used as mobile classrooms during school construction.  McFarland says he’s thrilled the shelter can stay open.
McFarland: “Cause it seems like every April when I close this down, it’s raining and cold, and nobody cares.  These 150 folks then are on the streets.  So these 150 get a reprieve, and the additional 50 or so that we’re gonna house out here that are currently at Tent City also will get the benefit of that.”
The one-two punch of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson stopped by the shelter Wednesday to promote it.  The mayor says he’s visited the tent city and talked with homeless people, and he thinks many will move right in.
Johnson: “They thought this was a good idea – and most of them said, quite clearly, they would take the opportunity to take shelters – whether they be temporary or permanent housing.”
Not the people I spoke with, though.  At the tent city Wednesday afternoon, I asked at least five people if they’d be willing to move to Cal Expo.  None said yes – and none said they knew anyone else who was interested.  After all, they pointed out, the shelter already HAS some available beds – meaning tent city residents have already chosen not to sleep there.
Hadley: “For most of us out here, Cal Expo is not going to be a good option for us.”
Renée Hadley’s answer was typical.  She’s not interested in leaving her dog at a kennel overnight while she stays at Cal Expo – even though the city now says it would pay for that.  And besides …
Hadley: “In three months, they’re gonna be moving us from there.  All that’s gonna do is frustrate and irritate us.  We are used to living out here on our own doing our own thing.  They’re gonna try to govern us, make us do what they want and the majority of people will not go for that.  And I can speak for the majority of people cause I know most of them, and most of them have told me.” 
Mayor Johnson says he knows some tent city residents aren’t interested in the shelters.  So local officials, volunteer groups and homeless advocates will reach out to campers like Hadley as soon as this week to systematically lay out their options.