Is a Safe Ground homeless camp coming to north Sacramento?
Council member may work with group to establish village for chronically homeless Sacramentans
A developing plan to build an exclusive community for the city’s most chronically homeless may count a surprising political ally in Sacramento Councilman Allen Warren.
Around the same time that city leaders prepared to earmark $1 million for new homelessness programs last month, Warren’s office was in talks to lend a piece of his economically distressed district to a unique project that could result in up to 75 permanent sleeping cabins for homeless men and women, someone involved in those talks confirmed.
“We’re getting close,” said Steve Watters, executive director of Safe Ground Sacramento, the six-year-old charity that will forever be remembered for trying to legalize “Tent City” a few years back.
Safe Ground is a coalition of local homeless leaders and promises on its website to help reintegrate “unsheltered homeless adults who sign a covenant to be alcohol, drug and violence free.” At one time, that meant squaring off against the city over a teeming homeless encampment along the American River Parkway known as Tent City, which was eventually torn down, setting north of a hundred people adrift and headed for illegal camping busts.
While in the midst of that effort, Safe Ground began pursuing a less in-your-face housing strategy, one that seeks to bring long-suffering adults off the street and into a crisp cottage-style development with basic services.
“The organization has been building a lot of support since they changed their vision,” said Andrea San Miguel, Councilman Warren’s lead staffer on social issues.
Micro-cottage communities are already being tried in Washington, considered in New York and watched closely by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The approach isn’t as revolutionary as Utah’s efforts to set chronically homeless individuals up with apartments and case workers, but it’s close.
It’s a bold vision, no doubt: Instead of shabby tents pitched along pockmarked fields, Watters envisions tidy tracts of fully furnished sleeping cabins, plus a community center, dog park, kennel and landscaped gardens, all with the purpose of easing dozens of the city’s most chronically homeless men and women back into mainstream society. Counting couples, the community could house up to 100 individuals at a time.
A case manager would oversee new entries to the village, conducting needs assessments and developing tailored action plans that could include Affordable Care Act enrollment, addiction treatment, psychiatric aid, employment assistance, life-skills training and other basic services. Stays would max out at a year, but Watters expected most residents to do six-month stints. To save money, bathrooms, showers and other plumbing needs would be consolidated in the community center, while solar batteries would be installed to sop up the sun’s energy.
“It’s a well-thought-out plan,” Watters said.
To pull it off, Safe Ground could need as much as 2.5 acres of city-owned land and about $3 million, which Watters hopes to cobble from the city, foundations, the business community and grants.
It also needs someone to say yes. “It has been part of the problem, and I don’t say that with any judgment of any of the council members,” Watters hedged.
Enter north Sacramento District 2 representative Warren. In early 2013, the councilman, then only a couple months into his freshman term, agreed to meet with Watters. The Safe Ground director planned to make a hard sell. He didn’t need to.
“I went in prepared to do a song and dance, and before I opened my mouth, he said he was sold,” Watters recalled.
The politician and activist may now be closing in on a potential location on which to build. Watters expected to make a formal announcement later this spring or in early summer, though San Miguel framed the prospects more cautiously.
“We’re willing to hear out what [Watters] is envisioning and researching,” she said.
“I’m optimistic,” Watters added. “I have to be.”
The bid will test Warren’s political capital in his district and put him out on a limb that his fellow Sacramento politicians have, thus far, failed to reach out and grab. After all, it’s one thing to say you want to help homeless Sacramentans, and quite another to put your district where your platitudes are.
According to San Miguel, Warren isn’t interested in political calculus.
“The council member doesn’t make decisions based on whether he thinks it’s a good political decision,” she said. “He governs based on what’s important. And this is important.”
It’s also not entirely without controversy. The complex would be designed exclusively for the chronically homeless, those adults who have been living on the streets for a year or longer, rather than the larger ranks of homeless families and youth.
Asked why, Watters said there appeared to be more programs available for the latter groups.
Not so, according to Shahera Hyatt, director of the California Homeless Youth Project.
The only place in the five-county Sacramento region that provides shelter to homeless minors outside of the foster-care system is Wind Youth Services, which has a total of 12 beds at its emergency overnight shelter in north Sacramento. Wind nearly shuttered its popular drop-in center for youth this past fall due to a loss of grant money.
For young homeless adults between the ages of 18 and 24, who have different developmental needs than their older counterparts, Hyatt said there are “zero options.”
“I’m supportive of Safe Ground, and definitely understand the need to respond to chronically homeless adults in a much more robust way than we currently are, but unfortunately, Watters’ assertion that homeless youth and families are being adequately served by existing programs is mistaken,” she said.
Watters thinks the village model that Safe Ground hopes to realize locally can eventually be targeted to other populations. “We want to make it a showcase, something that Sacramento will be proud of and will want to replicate,” he said.
Watters believes naming a possible construction site is still months away.
Watters has seen similar models fall short by cutting corners or moving forward without proper support. He doesn’t want this proposal to end up being another well-intentioned casualty. “I think we can do this really well,” he said.
This particular journey has taken a couple of years already, he added. If it takes a couple more, that would mean opening the village just as Sacramento County’s “10-year plan to end homelessness” reaches its 2016 deadline.