As the city of Sacramento gets serious about solutions for homelessness, Safe Ground sites provide meals, resources and the all-important porta-potties and showers. But not everyone believes they’re a real fix.
Shawana, 42, and her partner, Gary, 64, live in a tent under the freeway overpass at Sixth and W streets. Gary is severely diabetic and has lost several of his toes to the illness; he has bone disease and a huge open wound on the bottom of his left foot. Recently, he has been having seizures and has been in and out of the hospital.
The couple have been together for 15 years and homeless since last year, when the pandemic robbed them of their income. Shawana says that she was a caregiver until she lost her job; when her unemployment claim was denied, she and Gary spiraled downward financially. After they lost their apartment, they lived out of their car. When their car got towed, they lived out on the streets.
A few months after the city opened up a Safe Ground site for a couple hundred homeless Sacramentans under the Capital City Freeway at W–X between Sixth and Eighth streets (beneath the red-and-white bat-removal cones dangling from the bottom of the overpass), Shawana convinced Gary that they ought to try to secure a spot to pitch their tent. It seemed like a safer option than continuing to try to navigate the streets. It was governed by rules against drug and alcohol use, violence, unleashed dogs and cooking over open flames, and social workers on-site helped tamp down disputes that might arise between residents. Each occupant received a cold lunch and a hot dinner each day, and while there wasn’t running water, there were portable toilets. Once a week, portable showers were brought in for residents to use.
Exhausted from living on the streets, Shawana and Gary approached the people running the facility and soon afterward were given a new tent. They were approved to move in while they completed all the paperwork necessary to try to get more permanent housing.
“At this point in life, this is a blessing,” Shawana says. “Because I could have been nowhere. Lately, I’ve been spending my days here. He [Gary] goes out and about. I be here in this tent.”
Their fellow Safe Ground resident, 60-year-old Ken, who spent 12 years in prison as a young man after being convicted of armed robbery, has also been living at the site since early July. Heavily tattooed—including with a green, topless woman running down the right side of his chest—and thin, he is still recovering from a bout of COVID-19. His breaths are shallow and he tires easily.
Ken says he was evicted from his apartment six years ago, after his grown children argued with the property manager about whether they could keep their pit bull in the flat. Lacking the savings to put down a deposit on a new home, he ended up living in a tent by the river. More recently, he has sought a safer environment.
In July, after he heard about the new, organized encampment under the freeway, he lugged his big gray-and-black tent and yellow tarp over and asked to join. The organizers, working out of a metal modular office unit parked on Eighth Street, said that he could, so he pitched his tent toward the western edge of the encampment, inflated his large air mattress, brought in his carefully rolled-up blankets, his clothes and floor rugs. He bought large boxes of cookies to munch on, lugged in his blue-and-white cooler and his bottles of water, his music system and his Kindle, and set up home.
“I stay right here all the time,” he says, explaining that he’s afraid if he leaves, even though the encampment has security, someone will steal his possessions from his tent. He says he doesn’t have anywhere to go anyway, that it’s all but impossible to find employment if you look like you live on the streets.
There are nearly 80 people living in the under-freeway encampment. According to site director Joseph Pacheco, the average stay is 48 days. Pacheco wanders through the site in jeans and a pink shirt, a toothpick dangling from his mouth—past the tents, many of them with armchairs resting outside their entrances or wheelchairs or bikes parked off to the side, some draped with towels hung out to dry. He passes the donations table—where residents can pick up free tampons and energy bars—and the porta-potties. He has an easy manner and engages with the camp’s inhabitants in a friendly but no-nonsense way. Since he began working there in early May, shortly after the facility opened, more than 70 residents have been moved into more permanent housing.
On any given night, more than 5,000 Sacramentans live unsheltered, sleeping on streets or in doorways, tents or battered RVs and cars. In any given year, upward of 11,000 spend some time living unhoused, and 70% of those will end up on the streets, according to Bob Erlenbusch of the Coalition to End Homelessness. Under freeway overpasses and on-ramps, in parks and alleys, they form informal encampments, their tents and shanties surrounded by their possessions, often strewn haphazardly around.
Last year, 137 homeless residents in Sacramento County died, many of them of weather-related exposure issues. Nearly half of these deaths were of Black people, indicative of their overrepresentation in the city’s homeless population. Numerous homeless residents, like Gary, have serious medical conditions made worse by the brutal conditions of street life. A Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness report from 2020 estimated that the average life expectancy for a homeless man in the city was a dismal 51 years; for a woman, it was only 47 years.
These are simply extraordinary numbers, and they speak to the vast scale of California’s—and America’s—housing crisis, of the ultimate crisis of poverty amid plenty, and what the economist John Kenneth Galbraith once notably labeled “public squalor amid private affluence.”
Now, after years of halfhearted measures, the city and the state—backed up by large sums of cash from federal pandemic relief and stimulus bills—are getting more serious about tackling the problem. Political leaders, including Gov. Gavin Newsom and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, are pumping huge amounts of money into expanding access to housing and into needed social and medical services for homeless people. On Aug. 10, after months of political pressure from Mayor Steinberg and city councilmember Katie Valenzuela, the Sacramento City Council voted to approve a $100 million comprehensive Master Siting Plan, which, in one fell swoop, gave the go-ahead for nearly two dozen sites of varying descriptions—in addition to the already-approved Safe Ground site where Shawana, Gary and Ken were living—to temporarily accommodate the city’s unhoused population.
As with most everything housing related in Sacramento, however, already the plan, which will be administered by retired judge Lloyd Connelly, has run into a buzz saw of controversy. Some local homeowners and businesses are perturbed by the city-sanctioned concentration of homeless residents in their midst. Meanwhile, many advocates for homeless people are angered by what they see as the coerciveness of the proposals and the paucity of facilities available in the officially sanctioned encampments. The encampment under the freeway, for example, has no running water or sewage lines, no electricity, and thus no ability to bring in either air-conditioning or heating systems.
“I’m very wary of them just becoming containment zones,” says Paula Lomazzi, who experienced homelessness in the late 1990s and early 2000s. She now works with the Sacramento Housing Organizing Committee. “Without leadership, they just become paternalistic.”
Controversy notwithstanding, the efforts to open up these spaces to the city’s homeless residents have intensified since the council approved the Master Siting Plan. A handful of these sites have already gotten off the ground, with more slated to come online in the next few months. They are on city land such as unused parking lots, as well as vacant Caltrans sites, and while they currently house only a few hundred residents, they will, Steinberg hopes, ultimately be able to collectively host up to 5,000 people at any one time. In the coming years, if things go to plan, case workers at those sites will work with residents to help them get more permanent housing and link them with drug treatment, mental health services and other support systems necessary to stabilize them. With an estimated stay time of about six months per person, the city hopes to be able to help upward of 10,000 people per year transition off of the streets and into more permanent housing. Housing advocates are suspicious of these numbers, believing the proposed sites will end up helping perhaps a quarter of that number.
“Most people think it’s a good beginning,” says Faye Wilson Kennedy, lead organizer and co-chair for the Sacramento chapter of the California Poor People’s Campaign, about the creation of the Safe Ground sites. “But you can’t have people there for very long, because the environmental issues will have an impact on folks’ health.” The Capital City Freeway site, for example, is bedeviled not only by the constant noise and particulate pollution of traffic, but also by the cacophony and dust generated by the renovations occurring all around the area.
“Our first concern is that while the mayor presented it as a transitional plan that will lead to housing, there’s a paucity of permanent housing in the plan,” says Cathleen Williams, of the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee. Moreover, Williams says, homeless advocates worry that unhoused people will be corralled into these safe grounds, oftentimes against their will, with the threat of arrest in the background if they do not vacate their informal encampments and relocate to city-approved sites.
Steinberg talks of his concept as a right to shelter, backed up by an obligation on the city’s homeless residents to accept the locations and facilities being offered them. “I try to get to the various sites as often as I can,” the mayor says while talking with residents at the RV and car encampment site at Miller Park. “It [the Master Siting Plan] allows us to define compassionately but clearly that there are places where it’s appropriate to camp, and then there are places where it’s not appropriate. We have to lead with a big heart but at the same time achieve a safe and cleaner city. The two are not incompatible. If we bring people into an organized place with the right kind of support and providers and services, we can use these as triage centers to help people find something better: a home, an apartment, a shelter if necessary.”
Standing at the doorway of an RV festooned with decals of locales the driver has visited—from New Mexico to Canada—as well as a religious message informing readers that “The 10 Commandments Are Not Multiple Choice,” the mayor talks with 60-year-old Melvin Sullivan. Sullivan speaks from inside his camper, which is cluttered with thick wooden shelves and storage units filled with clothes and large bottles of water. The large, somewhat ramshackle vehicle is equipped with a three-burner stove, a small air-conditioning/heating unit and a shower. “All the essentials of home,” Sullivan says somewhat wryly.
Sullivan says he has been a truck driver for more than 40 years, and that he’s trained as a plumber, a landscaper and an electrician. He also tells the mayor that he has been homeless for nearly eight years, and that he’s always at risk from the elements. For the past four months, he has lived at Miller Park. He doesn’t like it there, he says, and wants to move back to Texas, where he has family, but at least for now it’s safer than the alternatives. “I would love to find permanent housing,” says Sullivan. “But the biggest problem is my income. I only get half my social security till I reach 65.”
City manager Howard Chan has framed the siting plan as a complex series of developments divided into three main stages. The first involves rapidly converting city-owned properties into temporary shelters; the second requires the city getting state and federal approval to use sites such as light rail stations to house people; and the third relies on the city securing approval from private landowners to convert a number of large buildings into more permanent shelters and affordable housing.
For Bridgette Dean, director of the city’s recently formed Department of Community Response, created to help the city formulate non-law-enforcement responses to complex problems such as homelessness and mental illness, the goal is “to create tiny villages or more long-term housing options.” Dean, a social worker by training who herself once experienced homelessness with her two young children, knows there are no easy fixes to this cascading crisis. “This has been an ongoing issue for many, many years, if not decades. We haven’t kept up with housing availability. This will not be an overnight process. It might take five years—maybe more.”
The city’s Master Siting Plan is based around the idea that different communities and different homeless residents have different needs. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, the plan calls for an array of housing options. Five of the temporary sites will be so-called “safe grounds,” essentially large, structured communities of tent dwellers—somewhat akin to the federally run camps for displaced migrants from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and other homeless people during the later years of the Great Depression—with some social services and security provided by a local nonprofit called First Step Communities. At W and X streets at Alhambra Boulevard, Volunteers of America is running an $8 million project that will see two huge tents set up; each one will house 50 people.
“We [staff] the sites 24/7 with client support associates,” says Stephen Watters, First Step’s executive director. “The same thing as the old shelter worker concept. A lot of times they’re at a table out in the parking lot—even in the middle of the night. The staff are good people who work hard to try to keep people safe.”
Watters has been working with the city’s homeless residents for more than 12 years and has been running city and county programs that work with unhoused people for many of those years. In the world of homeless programming, he is considered something of a visionary, having hired architectural firms to develop detailed concepts for cluster-based tiny and modular home communities, complete with landscaping, pet areas and kennels, commercial-scale kitchens, on-site medical and mental health services, employment training and child care. In the computer-generated plans for these sites, there’s something of the village-beautiful to them, an almost utopian presentation of happiness and order, in stark contrast to the chaos of the streets. In reality, so far most of these sites are less beautiful than functional. But for the city’s unhoused residents, functional is a massive step up.
Watters hopes that, with the passage of the Master Siting Plan, eventually the city will be dotted with small villages that look somewhat like The Grove, a project that First Step Communities has run since summer 2020.
In North Sacramento, adjacent to the Johnston Park homeless encampment, The Grove houses 24 at-risk youth aged 18 to 24—many of them recently aged out of the foster care system or kicked out of their family homes—in wooden tiny homes. They are modified 8-foot-by-15-foot wooden sheds built by local company Tuff Shed at a cost of roughly $12,000 per unit. Each one has a wooden built-in bed with a mattress, a wooden built-in desk, a small donated air-conditioning and heating unit, and a Wi-Fi router. The interiors are painted white, the floors rough-hewn wooden planks. They are, says Watters, “utilitarian,” affordable if not beautiful, and certainly a whole lot better than the alternative that many of these young men and women would face were they not in the program. There’s a community room with a large TV, a kitchen and a computer; four mobile trailers with toilets and showers; and an office where case workers meet with the young men and women, administer COVID tests, help with job and school applications, and assist them in looking for more permanent housing. Each day, Volunteers of America delivers prepackaged meals.
On average, each resident stays at The Grove for six months. The program began at the height of the pandemic, and staffers have managed to help 40% of the young adults who have passed through find permanent housing.
For 19-year-old Hurrikane Jones, who grew up bouncing between his mother’s house and his grandmother’s, and who says that he was kicked out by his grandmother when he was 17 because of his sexual identity, The Grove has proven to be a godsend. Instead of moving from one toxic and violent flophouse to the next, he has found stability. “I feel better. I’m happier. The people here really want to help you, to see you do good.”
Each morning, he says, he does yoga and meditates. He ultimately wants to be a life coach, teaching others how to find inner peace. Most days, he meets up with his case manager. He has just started working as a teller at a local bank, and he aims to have saved up enough money by year’s end to put down a deposit on a rental apartment.
“I have a bed to lay on, people who care. I have a whole team working with me, instead of being by myself. I don’t have to figure out where I’m going to eat next, where I’m going to lay my head. I have a room here. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. I feel really safe here.”
For Watters, stories such as Jones’s show a way forward. The encampments under the freeway are, he acknowledges, a rather awkward temporary fix. But in the long run, he hopes that the city will recognize the need for more durable forms of housing, in places with electricity and running water, and will use the large amounts of money flowing into homelessness-related issues to house thousands of unhoused residents not in tents but in real homes. “The city’s effort in the comprehensive siting plan is a good step to try to identify sites,” he says. “They can be sites that become ongoing. These can be done pretty quickly. I already know they’re going to be economically feasible.”