Allen Warren’s big shift: North Sacramento councilman calls to decriminalize law against homeless sleeping outdoors

Representative’s plea for the homeless gets cool reception from council colleagues

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the January 19, 2017, issue.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg campaigned on rolling up his sleeves to help Sacramento’s homeless, but it’s the controversial representative from District 2 who just suggested doing what the Right to Rest movement has advocated for two years.

Councilman Allen Warren said last week that recent travels have made him realize that even third-world countries are more compassionate to the unhomed than California’s capital city, where sleeping outdoors is illegal. However, when Warren asked the city manager’s team to look into lifting Sacramento’s so-called anti-camping ordinance, he was met with countersuggestions from the mayor and deafening silence from the rest of the council.

Warren’s January 10 comments came on the heels of Steinberg reiterating that City Hall is working to create a one-step entry portal for homeless services, as well as a long-term housing strategy. The city recently opened a temporary warming shelter for the weather-hit homeless and is looking for options to extend its portable bathroom program.

But Warren made it clear that the best plans for the future don’t eliminate danger and suffering in the present. “I was in a country that was a very poor place,” Warren said. “Yet I saw how some of the issues we have in this city are being handled by other communities and people with far less resources than we have.”

Warren added that administrators recently told him they have more than 100 homeless students attending Grant Union High School in his district. More disturbing, Warren added, were statistics that advocates obtained from the coroner showing 705 homeless people died in Sacramento County between 2002 and 2015.

“That’s one person every seven days,” Warren stressed. “We’re in a crisis state. … What we’re experiencing now is really traumatic impact on human life; and really, what does that mean to us?”

Warren ended his remarks with a story about recently learning that “an extraordinary” woman he’d grown up with had become homeless, which kept the issue on his mind.

Warren officially asked city staff to present council members with a report as soon as possible that analyzes options for decriminalizing urban camping in Sacramento.

Steinberg responded that Warren had just offered up “a very provocative idea.” The mayor then explained that he favored exploring different alternatives, including the possibility of opening up the city’s community centers as in-door sanctuaries during their off-hours. No other council members vocally backed Warren.

Homelessness activist James “Faygo” Clark told the council that a patchwork approach won’t alleviate fear and stress for most on the streets. “We have 2,000 people sleeping out there every night,” Clark emphasized during public comment. “If you have a sleeping bag, a blanket, a tarp or any of the life-sustaining items you need to survive the cold winter nights, unless you’re one of the 40 people lucky enough to get into the warming center, you’re risking either arrest or possible death from exposure to the elements.”

Despite Steinberg’s reluctance, Warren continued to ask staff for a report on options for lifting the camping ordinance. “I don’t see any objective rationale for us maintaining a policy that’s not working,” Warren said.