It takes a different village

Behind a bush. Beneath an overhang.

On a flattened cardboard box inside a doorway.

It’s where Sacramento’s homeless often sleep, especially in the winter, when the shelters fill up or are otherwise prohibitive. For instance, there are currently no places where couples without children can stay together, few where families with children can stay together and, naturally, none that allow dogs.

Now, Sacramento’s homeless have asked for a lawful place to pitch a tent. Advocates have proposed that the city allow a tent village to go up in Muir Park on 16th and C streets—a place where people without homes can take a shower and eat a meal, where families can stay together safely, out of range of muggers and alcohol and drug use. The homeless want a legal site where people who are down on their luck—there are at least 3,000 homeless sleeping in Sacramento every night—can safely and reasonably attempt to regroup and get their lives together.

Clifford Crooks from the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee has heard nothing but a flat out “no” from officials in response to this proposal. The city’s Parks and Recreation administrators have told him, simply, that it’s against city code to camp in city parks. Period. Over. The end.

But that shouldn’t be the end.

Don’t get us wrong; we agree that camping in parks largely should be banned and that city parks weren’t meant to be used that way by residents. But the merits of exempting one aptly placed park or finding a plot of land so as to allow a tent city seem obvious. They did for officials in the city of Portland, which, in 2000, exempted a one-acre parcel of land just outside the city center to allow homeless people to create what has become known as Dignity Village.

Though administered by Portland’s housing department, the Village has become its own self-policing nonprofit, providing legal shelter to 100 or so homeless, hosting fund-raisers to pay use fees on the land and encouraging “mini-businesses” to assist people in getting back on their feet. Dignity Village continues to attract controversy; alcohol has been found at the site occasionally, and there have been accusations of violence. (Where doesn’t that happen?) Still, the general concept seems to be working. About half the village’s residents reportedly are employed full time now, and many others are employed part time or are enrolled in an educational program. Following Portland’s lead, the city of Seattle initiated its own tent city last March.

Sacramento churches and nonprofits, such as Loaves and Fishes, continue to do their best to assist the region’s homeless. Local governments are also involved in trying to provide services, through a variety of agencies and in a dozen ways. But a variety of approaches is best, including one that assists the many who can’t be helped by traditional shelters. We urge city officials to allow the tent-village approach in Sacramento.