Twana James has lived along the Sacramento River for six years. She’s the unofficial mayor of Bannon Island, where she helps gather food and care for a close-knit community of about 60 homeless people and their 70 dogs in an encampment near Discovery Park. Many residents are older and have medical problems.
By the end of January, they could all be told to move.
Sacramento officials hope to relocate the community to an adjacent riverfront property, owned by the Sierra Health Foundation. City contractors would provide security and help connect residents with longer-term housing, mental health and addiction services.
But residents on “the island,” as they call the encampment, are worried about change. They say the small patch of land might not be big enough — and could flood.
“[City officials] said they’re going to work it out,” James said about residents’ concerns, speaking on Zoom from her campsite this week. “If they take one, they take all of us. Some people have been here for 20 years. So, we’re family.”
If established, it would be the city’s third Safe Ground site, and the first to open on private property. Sacramento opened its first two city-sanctioned Safe Grounds this spring. They offer people experiencing homelessness a place to legally sleep outside in tents or vehicles without fear of eviction. They are meant to be temporary.
The new site is located on a secluded grassy patch near the health foundation’s office, just yards from the existing but more spread-out camp. It is accessible by vehicle, making it easier to provide services, city officials said.
The new Safe Ground would close after three months to ensure it doesn’t become a permanent encampment, they added.
“The goal is to move them into this location and then as quickly as possible find a longer-term, sustainable housing situation for them,” said Gregg Fishman, spokesperson for the city’s Department of Community Response.
City officials this week said they could not detail what measures would be taken to protect or move residents during a flood. Fishman added that the site could include temporary “tent-cabin structures, something stronger than a tent.”
Some say they understand why Bannon Island residents are skeptical.
“They've been made a lot of promises” of help that never materialized, said Joe Smith, policy advocate at Loaves & Fishes, a homeless services center in Sacramento.
Smith said the new Safe Ground initiative has potential, if done right. It could even serve as a model for other businesses to partner with local governments to ease the homeless crisis. He stressed, however, that the campsites need adequate services and staffing, including security, if they’re going to help transition people to permanent housing.
“We don’t want people to just be stored in a space,” Smith said. “We want a safe space for people to be stabilized.”
In a news release about the city’s plans, Sierra Health Foundation CEO Chet Hewitt echoed those sentiments.
“As a private landowner interested in improving health in our region and beyond, we understand that a path toward improved health for the unhoused starts with access to safe and dignified living environments while waiting to secure permanent housing,” he said.
Currently, Sacramento has two Safe Ground locations up and running: a vehicle site on Front Street near Miller Park and a site with both vehicles and tents under the W/X freeway across from Southside Park.
Chris Nichols / CapRadio
The sites are considered “low barrier,” which means residents can bring their pets and all of their belongings, and they can come and go as they please. They can be struggling with a mental illness or an addiction so long as they don’t partake in substances while at camp.
In August, the city approved a site map for 20 more safe ground locations. But aside from the riverfront Safe Ground, it has not been able to say when they will open, leaving advocates doubtful many will open this winter.
Relocating people from Sacramento’s first Safe Ground
Sacramento is in the process of closing its first Safe Ground, under the W/X freeway. Fishman, the city spokesperson, said there are now 34 people at the site, down from about 130. Residents have been relocated to either city shelters, back to their families or received motel vouchers, he said.
He added that the site was always meant to be temporary. City officials expect to announce the opening of a new Safe Ground location in January to accommodate remaining residents at the W/X site along with homeless residents who officials say were attracted to the site and now camp nearby.
Recent storms have led to flooding at the site. Passing cars and trucks on the freeway above also spray stormwater on the tents below.
In an interview in November, Sylvia Saldana, 41, who had lived at the W/X Street site for five months, said she’d consider moving to the new location once it was announced. But she added that what she really needs is housing, not another shelter or tent.
“We don’t want to be put in a shelter,” she added. “We want to be put in a home. That’s all they’re making us do is go from shelter to shelter. They put me in a shelter already and it had bedbugs there. So I left there and I came back here.”
Her shelter at the W/X Safe Ground consisted of a patchwork of tarps and blankets held up by wooden poles. Despite the difficult conditions, Saldana said the Safe Ground “means the world to me. I have my friends. Everybody watches over each other. We’re all there for each other.”
Plans for a permanent respite center
Along with working on plans for more Safe Ground sites, city officials are considering several locations for permanent indoor respite centers, Fishman said. City and county officials have opened walk-in overnight emergency shelters sporadically, usually for a day or two during times of extreme heat, smoke or cold.
For years, advocates have called on the city and county to create a permanent respite center, to prevent people from dying on the streets.
City officials are looking at sites near downtown and Sacramento’s River District, though Fishman said there’s no exact timetable on when one might open. They’re also considering converting the city-owned and former Powerhouse Science Center on Auburn Boulevard into a permanent respite center, but Fishman said that’s not a done deal.
The City Council is expected to vote next week on a staffing contract with nonprofit Hope Cooperative. The one-year $3.3 million deal would allow the city to staff both permanent and temporary respite centers across Sacramento.
Fishman said the city has only about 10 to 12 people who are trained to run overnight emergency shelters, adding “we can’t burn people out” by having them continuously staff the respite centers and work their day jobs.
This week, city and county officials announced plans to open several temporary respite centers starting on New Year’s Eve, as another cold front approached Sacramento.
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