Tent City takedown

Sacramento closes down world-famous homeless camp

What part of “no” don’t you understand? Tent City residents are getting the heave-ho from the city of Sacramento.

What part of “no” don’t you understand? Tent City residents are getting the heave-ho from the city of Sacramento.

Photo By ted cox

It’s moving day for Robert.

Not that he has that much to move. But with the day mostly gone, he needs to get going.

It’s Easter Sunday in Tent City. While thousands of Sacramentans sit down for after-church brunch, Robert lays in his blue one-man tent, his legs poking out the front of the zippered opening. Even though his tent is surrounded by food scraps and small piles of trash, his clothes are remarkably clean.

His neighbor, James, stands outside the tent, passing on the latest gossip. Rumors swirl around this place like windblown paper scraps. All that’s certain is Tent City is closing down.

“We got ’til Thursday,” says James—who, like Robert, wouldn’t give his real name. “After that, the cops are gonna start ticketing.”

Robert is a carpenter by trade. His business took a hit when the economy went south. He won’t say how long he’s been in Tent City.

“I’m out there looking for work five days a week,” he says, pointing towards downtown. “Now everyone says there’s nothing available.”

Last Thursday, James says, police handed out fliers giving the latest update: A fence goes up around Tent City Monday. Residents have until midnight on Thursday to pack their things and leave. At 12:01 a.m., police start handing out citations.

James doesn’t have the flier anymore. “I threw it out,” he says.

After Tent City made headlines across the nation as a symbol for the tanking economy, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson formed a task force to address the situation. Part of the problem is that Tent City lies on SMUD property, and the utility company has construction plans for the area.

The task force has already found housing for 50 people, according to Mayor Johnson spokesman Steve Maviglio.

“We’ve tried to offer everyone the services they need,” he says. “We’re spending almost $1 million to do that, instead of ignoring this problem and sweeping it under the rug like we’ve been for the past 20 years,” Maviglio says.

Tim Brown, director of the community council on homelessness, lead the outreach effort to Tent City residents. Brown’s agency is heavily involved in the city’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, and he says they’re getting good results: In the first two years of the plan, chronic homelessness has dropped by 35 percent.

Brown and his agency surveyed about 130 residents in Tent City to better understand their needs. He presented the preliminary findings to the mayor’s task force last week.

“We’re trying to listen to what homeless people are saying about what they would need in the shelter system,” Brown says, “and it’s things like: They need a place to store their stuff, so they don’t have to pick it up every day and take it with them again.”

In response to Brown’s efforts, the city funded 40 units of permanent supportive housing. Another 40 units will open to specifically help those with mental-health issues.

The city has also decided that its 154-bed winter shelter, which normally closes in March, will remain open for another three months.

“We’ve also created space in the shelters for couples, because there’s quite a few people who are in couples out in Tent City,” he says.

For a while, says Brown, there was concern that some homeless advocacy groups would practice civil disobedience with Tent City residents, including sit-ins and protests. But there’s been some work to make sure that doesn’t happen, he says.

Not everyone in Tent City is taking up the city’s offers for assistance. Some residents have moved a few hundred yards west to another encampment not on SMUD property.

“There’s people out here running wild, and that suits them,” James says.

Robert plans to have his things moved by the end of the day. He has a new spot picked out, but he won’t say where it is.

“Sorry, man,” he says. “That’s private.”