Few people would want to pitch a tent in January, but for the homeless men and women of Sacramento, California, it might be a welcome option.
With housing foreclosures soaring and homelessness rates following suit, Sacramento is getting creative. According to a recent story in the Sacramento Bee, Sacramento may soon be following the lead of several major cities, including Portland and Seattle, as it considers a proposal to create “tent cities” — essentially sanctioned homeless camps. The problem is severe:
Some 2,500 homeless people live in Sacramento, and several hundred of them are camping outside at any given time, surveys suggest. For years, area cops and park rangers have engaged in a kind of chess game with them. Tent communities pop up on sidewalks, on the American River Parkway and in front of shelters, and nearby residents and business owners complain. Police roust everyone under the threat of citations and seizure of possessions, and the homeless pull up stakes and go elsewhere, only to return weeks or months later.
If approved, the self-policed, drug-free campsites would offer temporary refuge and basic services like running water and portable toilets to residents.
After much debate, the city is coming close to opting for an encampment near Loaves & Fishes, a private shelter. Potential sites are being chosen based on proximity to services, access to transportation and impact on surrounding residential areas — which some say may be unbearable. The tent cities have met resistance from residents, property owners and developers concerned with the potential proliferation of trash, higher risk of fire hazards and the possibility of increased drug and alcohol abuse. The proposal has faced particular opposition from North Sacramento developer Robert Slobe and the American River Parkway Preservation Society, which has decried the sanctioning of these “neighborhood destroying measures” on its official blog. But Mayor Kevin Johnson has spoken positively of the idea, which will soon be up for approval by the City Council and Sacramento County Board of Supervisors.
Proponents point to the success of “Dignity Village” in Portland, Oregon, a one-time tent city that’s transformed into a town-like settlement with small houses, a village “council,” 24-hour security and even a recycling program. Dignity Village has become a relatively permanent fixture in Portland since being officially deemed a campground in 2000, which exempted it from anti-shantytown building codes that would otherwise force its homeless back into shelters or onto the streets.
But not all tent cities are meant to endure. A 150-person campsite in Reno, Nevada, sprung up sporadically when emergency shelters were closed down last summer. Instead of dispersing the crowds, officials let the tents stand for a few months, largely because shelter beds were already filled to capacity. The tenants were evicted last October when two new shelters opened in the area. It was merely a temporary solution to what may prove to be a long-term problem not just for Reno or Sacramento but for all urban centers across the nation.