Shelter ahead? The city of Sacramento doesn’t know what it will do when its temporary shelter closes in April

Delays, intake tactics and parkway pollution continue to fuel concerns about the city’s approach

Some camping persists along Steelhead Creek.

Some camping persists along Steelhead Creek.

Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

On a bleak afternoon, a group of men and women stand at the gates of the city’s new winter triage center, a gray, cavernous warehouse anchored almost directly under the levee that many were just camping on. Beyond its fence, a few soiled tents still straddle the bike path up on the earthen wall, where a mammoth encampment was once visible from a bridge on Arden Way.

While the line of canvas dwellings is mostly gone, the wind moves over another sight across the water—long piles of garbage strewn throughout the brush and trees. A few campers still hold out here, surrounded by mounds of plastic bags, rusted gear, aluminum clutter, empty syringes and stray propane tanks.

As the gale grows colder, Ramona Jasper huddles near the gate to the triage shelter. She and her husband Anthony Moss are relieved to be out of the frigid temperatures. Last spring, the couple was rousted numerous times while camping along Steelhead Creek. They were hopeful about Councilman Allen Warren’s proposed tent city. When Mayor Darrel Steinberg tabled the idea, the threat of another winter darkened. But the temporary triage center Steinberg championed does offer some of the promises of Warren’s concept, including safety, hot meals, toilets, sinks, showers and a place for pets.

“I’m very grateful,” Jasper said. “I have no complaints.”

Other people staying inside the shelter were equally positive about its services. However, the temporary shelter is just that—temporary. City officials acknowledge that their next move when the center closes March 31 is an open question mark.

Now, the negative publicity the shelter garnered during its launch, and its rough opening weeks of operation, have some advocates worried about the political minefield the city will have to traverse while planning its future strategy. Also dogging the mission, even for some shelter supporters, is the failure of city and county leaders to do something practical about camping-related pollution in Sacramento’s creeks and rivers.

Critics and homeless advocates alike noticed that it took a week longer than Steinberg promised to open the shelter in December. Even now, the shelter isn’t accepting as many guests as advertised.

The city’s strategy for admitting people through its police impact team and outreach navigators also hurt the endeavor’s image, as the process left dozens still camping—almost right in front of the facility—for several weeks after it opened. Making matters worse, rumors swirled that homeless individuals could only get in if they had contact with police officers. A history of losing camping supplies to the department made some reluctant to seek access.

Nikki Jones, a single mother currently experiencing homelessness, tried to inquire about getting into the shelter. Jones says she called Sacramento Steps Forward for information, but was told the agency’s system wasn’t updated, and was then advised to call 211 for details on the center.

“I called 211 for a referral, but they knew nothing about it,” Jones recalled.

One person monitoring the shelter confusion was Eye On Sacramento member Nancy Kitz. While Kitz agrees with taking lifesaving action during winter, she thinks the triage center has been mismanaged.

“It lacked public participation,” Kitz said. “There was never an effort to engage the community in the beginning, and that’s really continuing to haunt this project.”

But officials stress the center has now brought 244 people out of the cold since opening. The city’s homeless services coordinator, Emily Halcon, said people staying in the center have access to health services and outreach workers trying to find them housing options. When the shelter closes, Halcon added, the city will look to leverage its Whole Person Care grant for homeless relief.

“We’re actively looking for other sites for another shelter,” Halcon said. “Adding additional shelter capacity is on the wish list, but we have to do it in consultation with the community.”

Referencing criticisms that the city put too much emphasis on mustering shelter resources in north Sacramento, Halcon acknowledged, “We’re open to all different ways. There’s a need everywhere in the city.”

Steinberg announced last week during his state of the city address that he plans to bring 1,000 “tiny home” living units to Sacramento in the next two years.

Yet, as the city looks for community buy-in on new shelter sites and the tiny homes push, it’s also running into anger from residents who think it, along with county leaders, are ignoring an environmental emergency tied to the scope of homelessness.

Jane Macaulay, a member of the Woodlake Creating Transparency Neighborhood Association, has produced videos and slide shows on the extent of camp-related garbage strewn across and into north Sacramento’s waterways. Members of the American River Parkway Preservation Society are also voicing concern, demanding more clean-up and sanitary action.

“Allen Warren should not give one bloody dime to anymore nonprofits, he should spend it on dumpsters, so there’s a place to put the trash,” Macaulay said.

The Board of Supervisors increased its budget this year for parkway cleanup, though the money was earmarked for the razing of camps rather than adding dumpsters for homeless people to use.

District 6 Councilman Eric Guerra said an expanded dumpster program will probably only happen if there is greater cooperation between the city, county, local businesses, sanitation districts and the American River Parkway joint-powers authority.

“There are all these agencies trying to tackle the problem from different directions, but we haven’t come up with a countywide strategy,” Guerra told SN&R. “If we had a more thoughtful approach on how to pool our resources, we could free up money for something like commercial dumpsters. … Right now we’re playing whack-a-mole.”

Kitz believes the city could get more state and federal resources for both shelters and environmental cleanup if Steinberg and the council would drop their concerns about Sacramento’s image and declare an official homeless emergency. She also thinks that would bring more communitywide focus on concrete goals.

“You have to prioritize in an emergency,” Kitz said.