Will Sacramento Have A New Tent City?

Posted: August 19, 2009 in Bureauacracy, Government, Homeless Shelters, Homelessness, Housing, Politics

One of the primary reasons many local governments have been so unsuccessful at addressing and reducing homelessness within their communities is because politicians and bureaucrats seem to have a propensity for implementing knee-jerk legislative measures.

Rather than approaching the issue using just a bit of common sense and planning, what they’re hoping for is a "quick fix" – which is akin to "throwing stuff at the wall" hoping something will stick.

Consequently, all they end up succeeding at is going around and around and ultimately make matters all the worse.  

Here’s a prime example –

This past March, I wrote a post called "Sacramento ‘Tent City’ To Be Dismantled."

The post was about a tent city which gained international notice after it had appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Subsequently, the tent city was dismantled, and the majority of its residents were placed into local area shelters.

The drawback is that those shelters were only "winter shelters" – meaning that the shelters operated only during the winter months.

Sacramento’s Mayor, Kevin Johnson, proposed that the shelters remain open until at least June 30.

In my post I questioned just how effective keeping those shelters open until June 30th would be, and said:

"The fact is that the residents of Sacramento’s tent city already have shelter: their tents. Moving them into a ‘traditional’ shelter isn’t a genuine solution – especially if it will be open only until the end of June. After that, those folks will most likely find themselves ‘unsheltered’ again unless a more permanent solution is offered."

Yesterday, I read an article in the Sacramento Bee which mentioned that Mayor Johnson has proposed a "city sanctioned" tent city which would allow "… people without permanent housing could camp without police interference."

As it turns out, Mayor Johnson had put together a "task force" to outline the workings for what the city is referring to as a "legal safe ground."

Part of the task force’s preliminary report proposed having the "camp" run by a governing body of its residents with the assistance of a social worker.

If the proposed "camp" is approved by the city council, it would go into operation next spring – nearly one year after the dismantlement of the original tent city.

So, let me see if I have this straight…

First Sacramento dismantles a tent city and sends most of its residents off to local seasonal shelters. After June 30th when those shelters shut down their operations for the summer, former tent city residents were "back on the streets" having to hunt down places to bed down each night and, at the same time, having to avoid being caught and cited by local law enforcement officials for "illegal camping."

Now, Sacramento is proposing to erect and fund a "city council approved" tent city.

Something in all of this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

To be sure, the previous tent city was located on property owned by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and they were planning on using that piece of land for something or other. So I can understand their wanting the homeless moved elsewhere. And, I can also understand the city feeling the need to have acted.

All the same, it seems to me that prior to dismantling the previous tent city Sacramento’s city leaders should have thought the process through using a bit more common sense.

I’m not saying that they should have just let the homeless set up camp just anywhere they pleased. However, since the city does indeed lack an adequate number of available year round shelter beds, they could have – at the very least – eased up just a bit on issuing tickets for "illegal camping" while they worked toward finding a more equitable solution.

I’m realistic enough to recognize that most cities are struggling to find effective ways of managing their homeless populations. But, knee-jerk reactions and legislation which inflict punitive measures on folks who must perform life-sustaining activities in public are not the answer.

Until local governments take the time to "look before they leap" with regards to how they propose to address homelessness, they will continue to be ineffective at actually helping folks get off the streets.

As for Mayor Johnson’s proposed city sanctioned homeless camp, there is one question that comes to mind –

I’m wondering how many of the former residents from the tent city dismantled in March will end up living at this new tent city?

  1. Blogged, and linked back to this post. ;-)

  2. Rev. Cynthia says:

    Many thanks for this follow-up article, Michael! As you have stated, it would be interesting to find out how many folks, who were in the March tent city, are still not housed and end up in the “new” tent city.

    Personally, I don’t like the idea of giving “the powers that be” the impression that Tent Cities are an acceptable solution for the overwhelming numbers of people who are homeless, with more ending up on the streets everyday. Let’s remember, that living in a tent means that you don’t have a toilet or a shower or a safe place to store your food or cook inside. Plus, I don’t think that anyone, who is working or going on job interviews, would decide that was the perfect time to go on an extended camping trip. It is next to impossible to function under those circumstances.

    Additionally, let’s not forget the children, who are homeless, living in those tent cities (or shelters) and still trying to go to school, study, and somehow maintain a sense of “normalcy.” This is horrific and clearly societal neglect, if not downright abuse.

    As you have pointed out in the past, Michael, the solution to ending homelessness is providing enough affordable housing. My personal experiences with homelessness and living in poverty (as someone who is receiving SSI disability benefits) make it clear to me that there needs to be much more subsidized housing.

    Blessings along your journey…

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