Conditional humanity: Sacramento mayor will only consider temporary encampment if activists shut up about unlawful camping

Steinberg complains of continued public grousing surrounding arrests of homeless residents

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the March 30, 2017, issue.

Civic-minded stubbornness sometimes pays off.

After months of being the only politician in Sacramento to suggest homeless people deserve the right to exist outside without arrest, Councilman Allen Warren finally got his colleagues to consider a temporary safe ground in his North Sacramento district.

But that consideration came with a huge catch from Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who said he would give Warren’s idea a fair shake only if homeless advocates agreed to stop lobbying him to repeal an unlawful camping ordinance that makes sleeping outside illegal.

Steinberg made his irritable counteroffer after midnight had eclipsed an already-lengthy and tension-filled council meeting. And it appeared that Steinberg, a longtime state lawmaker getting a refresher course in direct democracy, had had enough.

“Here’s my deal, I will not support this in any way unless there’s an understanding with the advocates that we’re going to … fully evaluate it and that we do not take endless hours here in the council chamber on this camping ordinance,” he said, exasperated. “You want to try this? That would be my compact with you.”

Steinberg put the responsibility for crafting that compact to Warren, which irked some in the audience.

“He implied advocates were some cohesive group controlled by Warren,” Kimberly Church, a teacher and homeless youth advocate, later wrote to SN&R on Facebook. “Some of us don’t even know each other, and to assume we are Warren’s puppets is insulting.”

Warren’s proposed encampment would house up to 200 people in dormitory-style tents on city-owned land for as many as 120 days, Warren explained to his colleagues in the early hours of March 22. The site would feature a triage center, 24-hour staffing, portable showers and restrooms, and a kennel.

“It would be a facility where people could live without the fear of harassment,” Warren said, where the city’s homeless residents “can heal, not just physically, but mentally.”

County politicians are considering a similar idea to accommodate 75 people on unincorporated land.

Warren said his team is still considering possible sites in his district, but that the outdoor facility could be up and running within 30 days of one being selected.

The two-term councilman described a public-private partnership to spread the costs, with the nonprofit First Steps Community operating the outdoor facility, a vendor on board to donate large canopy tents, corporate donors and community volunteers who have expressed interest in underwriting the project, and the city potentially contributing $100,000 to get it off the ground.

Emily Halcon, the city’s homeless services coordinator, later estimated it would cost up to $2.2 million annually to operate an indoor shelter for 100 people.

Some of Warren’s colleagues remained cool to the idea. Councilman Jay Schenirer requested a detailed financial breakdown, while Councilman Steve Hansen asked for a land use permitting process that included community feedback. Hansen also suggested the city shouldn’t dedicate any resources unless other ideas had the chance to be considered.

Warren took the suggestions and questions in stride. “Let’s put all the ideas on the table and see how we can most effectively deal with this issue,” he said to Hansen’s point.

The statement underlined the fact that Warren is the only council member who has put forth a plan to address the immediate crisis. Longer-term, Warren said he had also identified a separate 5-acre site that could accommodate a permanent micro-housing development for the homeless.

As for the tent encampment, it would exist for just four months, Warren said.

In answer to Councilman Larry Carr’s questions, Warren said he envisioned the city manager would declare a state of emergency so the encampment wouldn’t violate the city’s unlawful camping policies.

Thirteen people from the dwindling, late-night audience testified in favor of the idea, with a few people calling Warren a hero for bucking the political norm.

As for Warren, he acknowledged his own evolution on the subject.

“This is a concept that I think most of us wanted to stay away from. And when I was first elected, I was not an advocate for outdoor living for the homeless either,” he said. “But as I have become more knowledgeable about the issues impacting our homeless community, and the challenges that they face in order to just live day to day, I believe we have to consider, we have to consider all options.”

Councilwoman Angelique Ashby offered Warren her unconditional support. But Steinberg, who opposed the camping ban as a council member in the 1990s but has resisted calls to repeal it now, seemed annoyed that his plan to raise as much as $40 million for a voucher-based housing reallocation wasn’t garnering the same enthusiasm from those in the audience.

Earlier in the meeting, the council voted in favor of the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency starting the process to include a homeless preference for up to 160 public housing units that open up annually.

Repealing the unlawful camping ordinance “continues to dominate at least the council meetings,” the mayor complained. “I don’t think it actually dominates the community’s agenda on this.”

Then he assigned Warren the impossible task of silencing a diverse group of individuals from housing, health, faith and other areas who think the camping ban is wrong. Because, Steinberg said, “I’m not doing it. I’m not doing this every week. I’m not doing it.”

Church, who was one of the speakers to support Warren’s strategy, didn’t think much of Steinberg’s tradeoff. “And for the Mayor to tell citizens they have to give up their right to speak out against the government in order to secure approval for emergency shelter … I was really stunned,” she wrote.