It has been an ongoing battle between the police who drive them out, confiscating all their belongings, and the homeless who disperse only to turn up at another illegal campground along the American River Parkway. The parkway is billed as a walking and biking wilderness experience which runs along the banks of the American river through the heart of Sacramento and past the fairgrounds, yet the public is fearful to use portions of it. Not much public attention was paid to the situation.
Recently all of that has changed.
With the election of ex-basketball star Kevin Johnson as Mayor of Sacramento, the calls went out for a change of attitude towards the homeless.
In late December of 2008 attorney Mark E. Merin, who frequently represents the homeless, had this to say:
While housing is the goal, whether in apartments, rooming houses, cottages, or in group homes or communal living arrangements, the immediate need is for a moratorium on citations and arrests for camping and support by the city and county for a new approach. "Tent cities" on vacant lots are now prevalent in the areas near Richards Boulevard and North C Street. Acceptance of tent cities will allow the city and county to stop wasting resources rousting homeless campers from their encampments, prosecuting them, and seizing and disposing of their belongings in a never-ending battle to drive the homeless away. It will allow public agencies to redirect resources into providing portable toilets, waste receptacles and some measure of security for homeless persons as they try to improve their situations.
Then in late January of this year, the call was put out to make a place for a legal tent city as outlined in this article from the Sacramento Bee:
Police, city and county leaders and homeless advocates are seriously considering several potential locations for communities that would allow campers to live free from police interference and offer basic services such as running water and portable toilets.
Mayor Kevin Johnson told The Bee he is open to the concept.
"I am actually optimistic that we're going to get something done," said Mark Merin, who has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the city and county on behalf of homeless people who by choice or circumstances live outdoors rather than in shelters. Merin argues that ticketing homeless people for illegal camping violates their constitutional rights.
Next, in late February the tent city made national headlines when it was featured on the Oprah Show with the introduction "Today, we want to try and humanize this recession,"
and several weeks later on Inside Edition.
Also featured on the Oprah show were several of the local agencies that assist the homeless, St. John’s shelter for Women and Children, where a crowd gathered to watch Oprah, and Loaves and Fishes with its associated Francis House.
After the airing on Oprah, the aid and the reporters came pouring in to Loaves and Fishes as well as St. John’s.
The tent city is on YouTube. Television crews from Germany, London and Switzerland have visited. The New York Times published a story about it. "Inside Edition" spent an entire day at the camp of tattered dome tents in the shadow of the Blue Diamond almond processing plant.resulting in
The organizations [being] inundated with donations and offers of help from across the country since [Oprah] aired last Wednesday, officials said.
"We have had contact with people from Florida to Texas," said Sister Libby Fernandez, executive director of Loaves & Fishes, which offers meals and various other services to homeless people in Sacramento. "They are asking, 'How can we help?'"
Now the excitement is wearing down and attitudes are changing.The call is out to close the existing camps and move the homeless. Some progress is being made, though, and the plan is calling for more shelters and low rent facilities with a temporary campground at the Cal Expo State Fairgrounds as outlined in this Sacramento Bee report:
Funding for the project will include local redevelopment money, Johnson said. He said the exact costs and funding mechanisms will be laid out Tuesday, and that he is confident the money will be available. "People living around the river deserve respect and dignity," the mayor told a throng of news media. "For far too long, we've ignored the challenge."Advocates from Loaves are generally pleased with the plan
“I think there is a genuine awareness by the mayor and others that we have people living outside in very unsafe conditions, and there is a desire to to find them a better place," Burke said.
But some of the tent city residents are sure to refuse the city's offer, "and they're going to end up somewhere," said Loaves & Fishes executive director Sister Libby Fernandez. Fernandez said one or more legal encampments, perhaps at a state or city park, still will be needed.
Also, she said, campers represent just a fraction of the 1,200 people in the Sacramento area who are homeless.
"Loaves & Fishes is extremely grateful for Mayor Johnson's effort on this, and for the community support," [Advocacy director Joan] Burke said. "Adding extra shelter beds is wonderful, but we're going to need more. We are going to need multiple solutions to meet the needs of all of these people."
The storyline of this media frenzy is that right here in the U.S.A., in the capital of the most celebrated state in the nation, once-middle-class people have been driven to homelessness because of the economic downturn. Photographers and reporters from all over the world have told the story of the former construction worker, the foreclosed-upon couple, the once-proud auto salesman whose only shelter is now a tent, pitched illegally in a field along with hundreds of others brought down by the recession.
The truth is that most of the tent-dwellers are not like Favor, the mom recently profiled on Oprah. Many are more like Deidre, whose schizophrenia is the underlying reason for her homelessness.
We applaud the true leadership of Mayor Johnson and City Councilman Rob Fong, who've pushed for immediate, short-term solutions to the dilemma of tent city: keeping the winter overflow shelter open for an additional three months; increasing its capacity to 200 people; finding room for 90 more people in year-round shelters; creating a spot at Cal Expo for a more flexible approach to sheltering; and, most significantly, renting apartments so that a very lucky 40 people can have a home of their own, albeit one shared with numerous roommates.
Why are we now so riveted by and concerned about people suffering from the economic downturn for the past several months when we have not ensured – even in better times – that all of our fellow citizens have shelter that is safe, sanitary and secure?
And, once the media have moved on to another story, will we continue to care?
Life in these camps can be dangerous,
and the inhabitants have been blamed for brush fires and other problems.
Life has become a circus for neighbors in the area:
Taylor and his wife, Carolyn, no longer feel free to walk along the levee to admire the river and the animals that live around it. They and their neighbors have had their homes broken into and their car tires slashed. They have been awakened at all hours by loud voices and violence, and they suspect that drug dealers roam the street. Their sidewalks are littered with empty liquor bottles and cigarette butts.
Because it provides a direct route to the nearby Loaves & Fishes complex, which offers meals and social services to homeless people, Dreher Street is a kind of homeless highway.
Traffic has become more intense in recent weeks, since Oprah Winfrey featured the tent city in a program on homelessness. Media crews from as far as Germany and Australia began parking their satellite trucks on the street. The campground is drawing new residents and scores of do-gooders and gawkers. For Dreher Street residents, the situation has become annoying and, at times, genuinely scary.
So what is the solution?
This Sacramento Bee editorial
provides some insight into the problem and some possible solutions. It remains to be seen what path the City will take.