Field of dreams: Allen Warren’s tent city plan is dead. Long live tent city.

Sacramento council member won’t give up on safe ground as colleagues consider emergency shelter and stricter homeless laws

The empty Johnston Park in north Sacramento has been a possible site for an outdoor homeless encampment since January.

The empty Johnston Park in north Sacramento has been a possible site for an outdoor homeless encampment since January.

Photo by Raheem F. Hosseini

A dry wind rustles over Johnston Park, a flattened yellow expanse surrounded by three working class neighborhoods in north Sacramento. A little girl makes a swing set whine nearby as her mother watches, while an occupied car idles in the parking lot of a closed community pool bordering the field. Except for a small party seated on the crabgrass lawn, the park itself is empty on a late weekday afternoon—empty, except for the vapors of a dream.

In January, this area’s elected representative, Councilman Allen Warren, announced his desire to fence off the barren field and stock it with enough modest dormitories and basic services to swiftly get 150 homeless people off the drenched streets and flooded riverbanks, and into an outdoor community that didn’t make them choose shelter over their partners, pets or possessions.

In a county where homelessness soars above 13,000, according to food stamp data, Warren’s plan wouldn’t solve the problem so much as acknowledge its toll. It was a populist—and provocative—idea, especially in a place that makes it illegal to sleep outside, and especially from a sitting politician as mercurial as Warren.

The professional baseball prospect-turned-developer-turned-council member was known more for his flirtation with the majors, bankruptcy lawsuits and council meeting absences when his about-face on homelessness policy made him an instant ally of the dogged Right to Rest movement and a sharp outlier on the Sacramento City Council.

Suddenly, Warren’s council colleagues were being shoved toward an uncomfortable ultimatum: Either align with the humanitarian, housing, public health and faith-based communities that have been urging politicians to stop sanctioning the ticketing of homeless campers, or side with the business interests that fear scaring away investors and tourists if the true scale of Sacramento’s homelessness epidemic becomes visible.

Only Councilwoman Angelique Ashby picked Option A.

Warren’s public lobbying for a safe ground upended the carefully planned narrative of Mayor Darrell Steinberg, in particular.

A former star lawmaker inside the Capitol, Steinberg ran for mayor promising to use his legislative connections to pull in major funding to address homelessness. He also said during his campaign that he “probably” wouldn’t support the city’s anti-camping ordinance if it came up for another vote. The newly elected mayor made good on his first promise in June, when the city landed $32 million in matching funds through a federal health grant that usually only goes to counties. Steinberg punted the second when Warren called for an end to the anti-camping law in January, shortly before the District 2 council member started calling for a safe ground at Johnston Park.

A lot has happened on the homelessness front since then.

In recent weeks, both city and county leaders have adopted stricter enforcement policies targeting homeless individuals along the river banks and around vacant buildings, while also seeding the ground for expanded emergency shelter operations this winter.

Warren’s colleagues were hoping that the city’s plan to create 300 new beds by December 1 would quell his appetite for a prettied-up “tent city” where homeless adults could access shelter, medical aid and social services. At the September 12 council meeting, Warren made it known that wasn’t happening.

“Let me just say I’m not prepared to take the tent city off the table,” he said to audience applause. “Ideally, we would have a place indoors for everybody, but I just don’t think that’s achievable. Until I do believe that it’s achievable, I will continue to advocate for all options being on the table, including the tent city option.”

Daniel Savala is Warren’s anger translator. Technically, Savala works as a field representative in the council member’s District 2 office. But where Warren has expressed general disappointment that his colleagues won’t give his safe ground proposal an up-or-down vote, Savala is more precise about why that’s happening: The mayor is making unrealistic demands, he says.

First, a quick timeline. After Warren proposed his idea in January, Steinberg told him to come back with a plan. Warren did in March. The mayor asked for an in-depth plan. Warren and his staff returned with one the following month, when they revealed that nonprofit First Steps Communities had agreed to operate the outdoor camp, outlined what services would be provided, listed the costs and named Johnston Park as their preferred site.

Steinberg commended the progress Warren’s team had made, but indicated the plan wasn’t ready to come out of the oven.

At the end of July, Savala described the requests the mayor was making as “administerial,” intended to bog down the proposal and prevent a controversial vote.

“’Where’s the fire hydrant going to be?’” Savala quipped. “That’s frustrating.”

When the mayor and his City Council have pushed back on the outdoor triage idea with new requests and questions, Savala has been the one responsible for finding answers. He said no other city project gets asked for this level of administrative detail. For example, Savala said, the mayor wants specifics on how the physical tents will be mounted, something he says doesn’t happen for ceremonial occasions where tents are displayed.

“These things happen daily,” Savala said. “But no one’s telling Concerts in the Park it can’t happen without a direct calculation of where the tents are going to be held down.”

Steinberg bristled at the suggestion that he was deliberately trying to kill Warren’s plan with a thousand administrative cuts. He insisted he was taking “Council Member Warren’s proposal very seriously,” but said there was more work to do. Like most of his council colleagues, the mayor acknowledged he wasn’t a fan of an outdoor encampment.

“No. 1, I don’t believe the tent city direction would be the way to go,” he said. “And No. 2, yes, that would be an enormous diversion from the amount of work that has to be done.”

Steinberg was referencing his bold play for the Whole Person Care program, a $34 million federal grant that is somewhat contingent on the city’s ability to raise matching funds and work with elected county leaders who have felt lectured to by their City Hall counterparts. If all goes well, Steinberg says, the federal aid will help move 2,000 homeless people into housing within three years. He believes that taking his eye off that prize to wade into the polarizing debate surrounding camping laws and tent cities would risk that long-term goal.

“The focus needs to be, what can we do to get people off the street in much larger numbers?” he said in an interview with SN&R at the end of July. “That’s where I want to put my political capital.”

Behind the scenes, Steinberg was working on an emergency shelter plan that he hoped would be less controversial.

Councilman Jeff Harris didn’t mince words about City Hall’s current approach to sheltering homeless people between Thanksgiving and April Fools’ Day. Calling seasonal shelters “a tremendous waste of money,” Harris noted that 60 percent of the city’s share goes to transportation while none goes to services.

“My definition of dysfunction is the way we’ve done winter shelter in the past—where we pick up people at Loaves & Fishes in the evening, take them to the faith-based communities, let them sleep … and then take them back to Loaves & Fishes in the morning, regardless of the weather,” Harris said during a September 12 council meeting. “What’s the point?”

The sign outside the Sacramento Safe Space for Unhomed Youth lists the rules of this weekly sanctuary, one of the few places where homeless adults under 30 can rest unaccosted.

Photo by Raheem F. Hosseini

While the city says 1,385 people got some measure of respite during the previous year, the annual winter shelter tradition has its flaws. Among them, the city notes that people can’t enter without showing identification, verifying their assets (or lack thereof) and appearing sober. They also have to be OK with leaving their pets outside, and be able to make it to the shelter within a certain window of time.

Addressing the council, homeless services coordinator Emily Halcon outlined a host of options to rework that system before Christmas. They add up to 300 new low-barrier beds by expanding existing city-funded shelters and creating a brand new 24/7 winter operation.

“Winter is just around the corner,” Halcon told council members, echoing Game of Thrones.

In case there was any doubt about why city leaders were entertaining an emergency shelter build-up now, Harris erased it. “The fact of the matter is I owe a debt of gratitude to Council Member Warren. With his proposal for a tent-sheltered city, it really pushed us to move forward,” Harris volunteered.

If Harris was hoping to neutralize his fellow council colleague’s nine-month campaign for a vote, it didn’t seem to work.

“I’m prepared to do my part,” Warren said. “But I just want to be clear that until we see victory … I will continue to advocate for all options.”

No real action was taken at the meeting. The City Council voted to free up $2.9 million in anticipation of a formal proposal being made by early November. By that time, the council may also hear more about a permanent triage shelter for upward of 200 people that the city hopes to open by the summer of 2018.

That’s too long to wait for many council critics, especially when it looks to them like Warren’s proposal is sitting on a shelf gathering dust.

“The tent city, yeah, it’s not a perfect idea,” said homeless rights’ activist James “Faygo” Clark. “But it’s something that can happen now.”

In the meantime, city and county leaders have moved more swiftly to create new laws to police homeless people in their jurisdictions.

Collin “C.J.” Jackson is in good spirits. In a week’s time, the lanky 20-year-old will no longer be homeless, thanks to a dramatic set of circumstances that nearly proved tragic.

As Jackson tells it, he was visiting his disabled sister, who lives on Broadway, when her husband came home drunk and attacked her after the two siblings confronted him about his drug use. Jackson intervened, but not before the man fractured a couple of his sister’s ribs. Jackson says the man is on his way to prison, his sister is nearly out of the hospital and he will soon move in with her to serve as her caretaker.

This is what passes for a break to someone like Jackson, who says he lost his Starbucks job because authorities enforcing the city’s anti-camping law kept pushing him farther and farther from work.

He’s currently staying near a dog park outside the downtown grid and making headway on a municipal debt that almost reached $1,200.

“I’m at the $400 range,” he said. “I keep getting tickets because no matter where I go, it’s illegal.”

Jackson, a Ripon High School graduate who is the son of a cop, says he doesn’t blame authorities for enforcing a law they didn’t create. Those same officers came to his sister’s aid when he called, after all.

“I have no problem with cops,” Jackson said. “It’s their job.”

And they didn’t create the law. Politicians did.

Under the city’s anti-camping ordinance, law enforcement officers from multiple agencies handed out 1,185 citations last year, according to Sacramento Superior Court records. Through July 24 of this year, the city’s ordinance inspired another 770 tickets.

Those figures are down from 2015, when the city law was cited 2,280 times. But they’re still so high that Mayor Steinberg initially didn’t believe them when told by a reporter. He asked multiple times whether those were countywide figures. They weren’t. “That surprises me,” he said.

In a follow-up phone interview, Steinberg stressed that less than a third of this year’s camping citations came from the city’s Police Department. Reminded that all 770 citations were issued using an ordinance created by the Sacramento City Council—meaning City Hall is responsible for all of them—Steinberg said he understood. But, he added, “to repeal that ordinance, I fear, would potentially make the homeless problem worse. Because it would send a signal that, you know, people can camp wherever they want to camp here. And I think that signal would go far and wide, even beyond the city and county of Sacramento.”

Civil rights attorney Mark Merin said the real reason the city and other jurisdictions insist on keeping their camping bans is to hide their shame. If homeless people no longer felt persecuted, they might be a little more likely to make themselves visible. And then Sacramento would have to actually confront its legacy of neglect.

“It’s the key to dealing with the problem,” Merin argued.

Local politicians have gone the other direction. After committing an extra $6.2 million to future relief for unsheltered individuals over the summer, the county Board of Supervisors approved a $5 million plan last month to raid camps along the American River Parkway all day, every day. Meanwhile, City Hall is considering separate proposals to further restrict panhandling, make it a misdemeanor to refuse to leave a public park and seal off the alcoves of vacant buildings, where homeless people sometimes congregate to get out of the rain or sun.

Bob Erlenbusch, of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, called the new laws “mean spirited” and said they “only serve to further criminalize homeless people.”

As for Savala, the field representative in Warren’s office, he’s tired of doing things the way they’ve been done.

“Imagine a person who is homeless who no longer has to worry about where they are on a given day,” Savala said, referring to Warren’s plan. At a sanctioned outdoor encampment with case workers and medical personnel, that person, Savala said, would be able to concentrate their energy on other things, like obtaining identification or finding work, or simply working though the physical and mental traumas that pile on after days, weeks and years on the streets.

“A lot of that population hasn’t even been given that opportunity because they’re being rousted or moved,” he said. “How long can you keep telling people to go if they have nowhere to go to?”