Homelessness in Sacramento: Long-term Progress, Short-term Questions

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(Sacramento, CA)
Thursday, July 23, 2009

Three months after police shut down the highly-publicized Tent City along the American river, Sacramento’s problem with homeless encampments remains.  City and county officials are focusing time and money on finding permanent housing for the homeless.  But many former campers are still sleeping outdoors – some clustered in groups, hiding from police.  Critics say local officials aren’t doing enough in the short term to get the homeless off the streets.

The Housed: One Couple's New Home

Mary: “Come out of the kitchen and go to the bedroom …”
Mary Smith is showing off her new home – a duplex in South Sacramento. 
Mary: “Then we go out (sound of door opening) and here’s the laundry room. Look, it is 50 cents for 45 minutes to wash, and a quarter for an hour to dry.”
It’s not big … just a living room, kitchen, one bed, one bath. But it’s an upgrade for Mary and her partner, Lance Miller. They moved to the Cal Expo Winter Shelter after being forced out of the Tent City. And they didn’t believe officials who promised them permanent housing. But about six weeks ago, Lance got the call:
Lance: “Felt like I got a brand new Cadillac! (laughs) Just felt rejoiced to get my old lady off the street. Thank the Lord over and over.”
A bible is open on a table next to their couch. There’s an old TV, a new fridge … and most importantly these days, an air conditioner. The walls are filled with color pictures printed off a computer – of Lance, Mary and their families. They’re hoping the stability of a new home will help them get back on their feet.  In a year, Mary says, they hope to be able to pay their own rent.
Mary: “In my own place. A house or apartment.  If our year is up, move on and give it to another family that needs it.”

The Policy: Long-Term vs. Short-Term

This is how Sacramento-area officials want to fight homelessness: get the chronically homeless off the streets and into permanent housing. Then, help them find jobs, get adequate health care and live a stable life. Tim Brown is heading that effort. He’s already found roofs for Lance and Mary, and 60 other former Tent City residents. Brown says this long-term approach is the only one that works.
Brown: “We’ve decreased chronic homelessness – the toughest part of the population – by 35 percent. And it shows that if we really want to, we can end homelessness if we provide enough housing and services.”
Burke: “If you’re one of the lucky people who got housing, that changes everything for you. The problem is, the demand so far exceeds the supply.”
Joan Burke with the homeless advocacy charity Loaves and Fishes says that demand is what makes a legal Tent City necessary. The Winter Shelter has closed for the summer; other shelters are full. And 1200 people in Sacramento County don’t have a place to sleep. So new encampments continue to pop up – and just as quickly, police have shut them down.
Burke: “For those who can’t yet get into that housing, we’re asking for Safe Ground, a legal campground, so they’re not hounded from place to place and they’re not subject to citations and arrest.”
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson has a task force researching solutions to homelessness – including whether a legal Tent City makes sense. But it won’t release its recommendations until the fall. In the meantime, the mayor says …
Johnson: “We need to have tough love, and public safety is very important. And I do not believe that people should be able to camp illegally anywhere in the city at this particular time.”

The Homeless: A Visit to a Secret Tent City
So Sacramento’s homeless population is retreating back into the shadows – and hiding from police. That’s the case at this secret camp site of a couple dozen homeless people in Sacramento’s River District, north of downtown. One of the campers, Donna Davis, says her group polices itself – so it’s no threat to public safety.
Davis: “It’s like a neighborhood watch. We watch out for each other’s backs. We make sure there’s no violence or drugs or alcohol. And if there is, the committee, which is five people, will talk about it and discuss on what the further action should be.”
The campers all want a legal place to spend the night. But they also want permanent housing. Tina Marie Basurto has bounced from the Tent City to the Winter Shelter, and now, she’s living here.
Ben: “How do you guys feel about folks who have gotten housing so far?”
Basurto: “I’m very happy for them.”
Ben: “Would you like it?”
Basurto: “Of course I would.  That’s the first thing I wanna get is my own place.”
Until then, Basurto says, she’s got to sleep somewhere – whether the city likes it or not.