Tragedy on the river
Despite pledges to find safe ground for homeless campers, the city kicked Tent City 2’s residents to the curb without options
December 28 was Brian Ortega’s regular chemotherapy appointment. But the homeless liver-cancer patient wasn’t able to receive treatment, because the city police were evicting him from his tent.
“I missed my chemo, and I’ve had nothing to eat,” Ortega said. “I have no place to go. I have no family. I’m not blaming these guys, but, c’mon, give us a warning. Don’t tell us we have to move today.”
Two dozen police vehicles, a patrol wagon and some 45 officers and park rangers arrived just after 8 a.m. on the Wednesday after Christmas and announced that the more than 150 homeless campers in some 125 tents would have to immediately vacate their encampment along the American River levee in North Sacramento, or face arrest for violating a no-camping ordinance.
Ortega said he was feeling dizzy and sick, so he gave himself a morphine injection—he informed police beforehand “so that they don’t think I’m doing dope”—then started the unenviable task of deciding what personal items to keep and what items to throw in the trash.
The procession of tents along the river just west of Highway 160—some called it “Tent City 2,” after the similar 2009 homeless encampment that prompted a visit from Oprah Winfrey’s TV show—stretched nearly three blocks. Police issued warnings in November that campers were violating city law, but the residents, many part of a larger Safe Ground Sacramento movement, refused to leave.
And—despite pledges by Mayor Kevin Johnson to both secure a “safe ground” for the homeless campers and also discuss the matter at a weekly city council meeting—city officials finally directed police to dismantle the camp on December 28.
“You’re a soldier,” a homeless camper named Brother Eli told a nearby policeman, who was bagging someone’s belongings. “Don’t let your heart hurt about this.”
Eli was one of the first to arrive at Tent City 2. He says he took it upon himself to lead the camp and keep it as free of drugs, alcohol, fighting and personal drama as much as possible. He even spawned different names for sections of the camp; his was “Camp Unity Seed,” and others included “Camp Go Green,” “DFZ: Drama Free Zone,” and the aptly titled “Jerry’s Kids.”
On Wednesday, Eli refused to leave his camp. City police Sgt. Andrew Pettit told SN&R that campers would not be cited or arrested if they were making “reasonable progress” at moving out.
But Eli wasn’t. “I’m going to jail,” he explained. “Where else do I have to go?” Around 1:30 p.m., two officers escorted Brother Eli into the back of a police car and drove him to the downtown jail. Four others loaded his personal belongings into plastic bags for evidence. His was the only arrest on move-out day.
Angela Burke lived farther east along the river at Tent City 2. She’s been homeless since she lost her job as a caretaker three years ago. Her voice was tender and brittle, as she explained that her dog, Prince Titus, passed away the night before,.
“He died in my arms, and nobody would help. He died miserably,” she said, then gestured toward her tent: Inside, a giant, dead Great Dane, partially covered by blankets. Multiple police officers would later remove the dog and take him to animal control.
Kyla Houchens and her boyfriend also had lived in the encampment since September, when her unemployment ran out. She’s actually a former city councilwoman from Hoquiam, a small city in Washington, but encountered dire straits while waiting for her financial aid to come through in January.
Houchens said she didn’t know where to go, but that she would “find another camp spot” with her boyfriend, who can’t get into the city shelters or voucher programs because of “legal issues.” They plan to attend American River College this month; she’s studying for a business and energy-management degree.
Homeless advocate and Safe Ground president John Kraintz was flustered by the events of the day. “It’s the same thing all over again, and we haven’t provided any solutions,” he said. “We just continue to arrest our way out of poverty. And that doesn’t work.”
He and others were quick to point out that Tent City 2 was in fact a lot different than previous incarnations. Campers built a makeshift trash disposal system—residents spray-painted red “X” where people could leave bagged garbage—and a toilet. Waste was packed up every few days, then biked over to Loaves & Fishes and disposed of—a humbling task if there ever was one.
“These folks as a community kept this as a safe and sanitary place to live,” said Loaves & Fishes advocacy director Joan Burke. “Why in the world would the city not let them do this legally, help each other, and give them the resources to move back into traditional housing?”
Safe Ground’s Kraintz and Steve Waters met with the city two weeks back and offered to pay for portable toilets and trash disposal at Tent City 2 through the end of the winter, but the city rebuffed the offer.
“They called the camp unsustainable,” Waters said.
It was moot, anyway: According to a police action plan that was obtained by SN&R, City Hall and Sacramento police had already decided as of December 15 to break down the camp, even though no extra homeless beds were arranged.
“The shelters are full, the winter sanctuary is full, so what you do is you force people to spread out all over the river,” Waters added. “So now, the ecological damage is spread out all over these areas. … You just magnify the problem. It’s a non-solution. And I think it’s just done to satisfy public opinion, to say you’ve done something about the problem.”
Loaves & Fishes’ Burke and her colleague, Sister Libby Fernandez, also said that, even if the shelters or vouchers were available, many homeless individuals do not qualify. If you are disabled, on parole, have too much gear or a pet (there were an estimated 100 dogs and cats at Tent City 2), or want to stay with your spouse or significant other, you likely won’t qualify for a local shelter bed.
This is a why a man who calls himself Garcia says he chose to live at Tent City 2: His wife, Michelle, has chronic seizures, and if they sign up for a shelter, they’ll be split up, and he couldn’t look after her.
Sister Fernandez says that “95 percent” of homeless individuals she works with would take a shelter bed if they were available.
Operating at the behest of the mayor, Steps Forward is the city and county’s new approach to tackling homelessness, or nonprofit-government hybrid, that provides social services and facilitates housing options. Kraintz and others are worried that Steps Forward, whose budget will rely on philanthropy in place of city-county funding, will take away dollars from local nonprofits such as Loaves & Fishes.
Kraintz also criticized Steps Forward for not having a coordinated presence with law enforcement during the December 28 action. “I would have thought [someone] would have been here before law enforcement showed up,” he said.
Steps Forward’s executive director Ben Burton said that because he “didn’t want to distract” from the efforts at Tent City 2 that day, he was at Volunteers of America overseeing increased capacity for the city’s motel-voucher program, which allowed for 20 or more homeless persons that evening.
“Our goal is to try to get as much housing for the community as possible,” Burton told SN&R. “We haven’t forgotten about it.”
Meanwhile, Kraintz says Safe Ground is looking to purchase private property for a homeless encampment. They’ve started to work with a commercial broker, but obtaining the land is only half the problem: They’ll have to entitle it for the use of a transitional homeless community, something the city surely will oppose.
So, as the politics of homelessness continued, Tent City 2’s residents packed up to join thousands of other homeless Sacramentans on the streets, in alleyways or hiding in the American River Parkway’s bushes.
Safe Ground’s Kraintz didn’t get it: “While people are trying to pack up their stuff, they’re dying out here. And they say they’re not hurting anybody by doing this?”