On Tent City 2

For more information about Safe Ground, visit www.safegroundsac.org.
“Homeless in Sacramento: Welcome to the new tent cities,” by William T. Vollmann, was published in the March 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

If there’s anything to be learned from the past two years, it’s that the city’s camping ordinance is the definition of a failed law.

That’s because it doesn’t work, and it never has. The presence of this law hasn’t effectively stopped anyone from sleeping outside in Sacramento. Instead, it’s created a cycle: a tent city, like the one that shamed the city in 2009 when Oprah Winfrey came here to film it, develops. A series of negotiations begin about what to do with the homeless who are living there. Sooner or later, the police warn everyone that their camp is illegal, and they will be evicted. And then they’re evicted, at which point the cycle begins anew.

Even stopgap measures, like the winter shelter or the rotating, under-the-radar system of sleepovers hosted by local churches eventually fail. They run out of money or space or both, and they never address the needs of those people who are homeless but who also have pets or opposite-sex partners from whom they’d rather not be separated.

So the camping ordinance—which prohibits camping outside on public property without a permit or on private property for more than one night, as well as “storing” camping equipment (sleeping bag or bedroll, tent or tarp) by just putting it down—is a failed law. It has neither prevented camping along the American River and in the various nooks and crannies of the downtown area, nor has it motivated anyone, public or private, to adequately address the need for shelter for our homeless residents. It hasn’t even succeeded at keeping the problem of chronic homelessness in Sacramento out of sight and mind.

But the camping ordinance has accomplished a couple of things. First, it’s managed to criminalize the basic human needs for a place to sit down, rest, eat and sleep—needs that still exist even if we don’t have a home. So instead of neighbors who are just homeless, we have neighbors who are homeless and who are committing a crime every time they try to find a place to sleep.

The second accomplishment of the camping ordinance has been to limit dissent about the camping ordinance. People who don’t have money for lobbyists and public-relations firms have no other way to attract the attention of the powerful than by camping out—both figuratively and literally—until they are heard. The treatment of both the Safe Ground and the Occupy Sacramento protesters is testimony to the power of the camping ordinance to quash public protest.

Given that the camping ordinance has neither stopped camping in Sacramento nor led to a solution for homelessness and the recurring Tent City, it’s time to scrap it. We’ve got some serious attention being given, once again, to a permanent, safe, clean campsite for homeless people—and both Mayor Kevin Johnson and Councilman Jay Schenirer have given support to the concept of safe ground.

Anything less will continue to fail.