Friday, 20 March 2009
Sacramento and its Tent City VIDEO
Housing the Homeless? | 6:22 p.m. Several readers have commented that the city of Sacramento seems to have a lot of vacant housing and wondered if it might be converted for use by the homeless people living in tent city. My colleague Vikas Bajaj, who has written extensively about foreclosures for The Times, checked the numbers:
I looked up how many homes and apartments are vacant in the Sacramento area and here are the numbers: 10.4 percent of rental housing units are vacant and 4.8 percent of owned units are vacant. The vacancy rates are higher than the rest of the country.
It seems that the city/county/state should at least be considering putting the homeless in the people-less homes and apartments that plague the area, rather than making permanent these squalid tent cities. They can probably acquire foreclosed homes for very little money and turn them into low-cost, affordable housing.
I checked with Mayor Kevin Johnson’s spokesman, Steve Maviglio, about this idea of moving the tent people into vacant housing, and here’s what he said:
It’s been talked about a little bit, but it’s private property and we don’t have the ability to secure it. But we are looking at housing owned by the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency. The problem with that is that it’s low-income housing and is maxed out, fully occupied. So that’s not an avenue.
Still, he said, the city is exploring all ideas, both temporary and long-term.
Original Post | 3:19 p.m. A tent city is burgeoning in Sacramento, Calif., prompting local officials to consider whether such an encampment should be made permanent, with plumbing and all.
The primitive settlement sits in the shadow of the state capitol and is home to about 300 people who have no toilets or running water, creating unsanitary conditions that advocacy groups worry could promote diseases like cholera. With the downturn in the economy and more working-class people losing their jobs and their homes, the tent city is expanding.
The mayor of Sacramento, Kevin Johnson, said in an interview that he wants to create a permanent tent city for the homeless, although he is not sure where it should be. He said he recognized that doing so would be difficult politically. But he said a permanent site could bring sanitation services and regulations like a ban on drugs and alcohol.
Mr. Johnson said that the rise in homelessness was a regional problem, and that surrounding localities should help pay for any solution, like establishing a permanent tent city. He will also have access to $2.3 million that President Obama’s stimulus package is giving Sacramento to deal with homeless issues.
“We’ve tried to sweep the homeless under the rug and it’s been our dirty little secret for far too long,” said the mayor, who took office three months ago and whose status as a former Phoenix Suns basketball star has helped attract media attention to the tent city. “We’ve been relying on good Samaritans and nonprofits, but they’re overwhelmed now.”
Tent cities — much like the “Hoovervilles” of the Depression — have sprung up elsewhere around the country. But Sacramento, with one of the highest foreclosure rates, has one of the biggest, with a population of “easily 300,” said Rob Fong, a Sacramento city councilman, and it is “definitely growing.”
“It’s an unfortunate sign of the times,” he said.
This tent city is in a place of great natural beauty, between two rivers, with birds and open sky and a relatively mild climate. Homeless people have lived there for years, largely unseen, but as more working class people move in, the tents are multiplying and becoming harder to ignore.
The official count of homeless people in Sacramento is 1,226 people, and they are spilling out to the tent city because the housing shelters are full; one of the shelters is turning away more than 200 women and children a day.
“With the recession, the numbers of people who need help has gone up dramatically,” said Joan Burke, director of advocacy for Loaves & Fishes, a nearby privately financed, non-profit organization that provides survival services for people who are homeless and tries to help them regain a home.
“The number of unsheltered people here went up 26 percent in one year,” she said. “We have lots of folks living in their cars. People are buying storage units and living in them. People are trying to do what they can to put a roof over their head. Sometimes people romanticize camping, that they are free spirits. In fact, it’s an act of desperation.”
While some residents are neat and tidy and build latrines, she said, many others are mentally ill, alcoholic or have other problems and do not use latrines. This has created what she calls “third world” conditions.
She said her group was trying to encourage the city to provide space at state campgrounds with toilets and running water. Mr. Fong, the councilman, is working on a plan that might convert the horse barns at a nearby state fairground, which is empty most of the year, into temporary housing. He is also encouraging a project in which local churches, synagogues and mosques would adopt a family from a local shelter and find housing for them, thereby creating more space in the now-full shelters for those living in the tent city.
Establishing a government-sanctioned tent city would require the approval of the city council and Sacramento County Board of Supervisors. Some property owners and developers have already raised questions about the idea, saying a permanent homeless encampment would reduce property values, put an extra burden on those nearby and block off a portion of the city to others.
“Today” on Sacramento’s tent city.
The current tent city, along the American River, has prompted concern by The American River Parkway Preservation Society, which has written on its blog: “If local government truly wishes to establish tent cities they need to be some place where the surrounding communities are not materially and criminogenically degraded — as the first call of public leadership is to protect the public.”
Nationally, almost half the people who are homeless live outside, not in shelters, according to a study released in 2007, said Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
“There have always been people living outside in huge numbers because no city provides shelter to all of its people,” he said. “But now there’s so many people and encampments have been getting larger.” Most of the tent cities began as shelters for the regular or chronic homeless, “but there’s new faces starting to pop up because there’s no room at the inn.”