War on homelessness

Downtown’s poor in the crosshairs, again, for no good reason

Nick Miller’s column on central city news and happenings appears every-other week.

I first worried that the city of Sacramento had big—but not necessarily promising—ideas for its poorest residents last December, on an icy, 40-degree morning near the American River. More than 100 tents, which housed hundreds of homeless Sacramentans, zigzagged along to the levee just north of downtown. But this encampment—some called it “Tent City 2”—was different than previous ones. It boasted leaders, sobriety zones and basic sanitation. And, yes, health, drug and crime issues, too. Its residents pleaded that they had nowhere else to go, though, that city shelter beds were more than filled.

Tent City 2 was, sadly, the best worst option.

Just after 9 that morning, a black SUV climbed the levee and a crew of sharply dressed—long noir coats, leather gloves, shiny shoes—city leaders emerged: Councilman Steve Cohn, Sacramento Steps Forward’s Ben Burton, River District executive director Patty Kleinknecht.

The council member seemed unmoved by the scene. He spoke, instead, of how it would be impossible to attract business investment to the neighborhood with tent cities, a concentration of homeless social services or “environmental catastrophes” caused by campers on the parkway.

Ultimately, the city didn’t have a solution for Tent City 2 or its homeless crisis, one that even the United Nations has condemned. They broke up the encampment, residents disbanding into the parkway and city streets.

At the time, I feared that—as the U.N. wrote—this would further “criminalize” homelessness.

Which is exactly what’s been happening on the streets, behind the scenes—and even in the pages of The Sacramento Bee—over the past month.

Business leaders have called my office and the Bee’s Marcos Breton has written three columns in recent weeks to bewail the lawlessness and depravity on the American River Parkway. And that homeless campers are to blame.

Residents tell me about messy and illegal feedings where church groups give away meals on downtown’s sidewalks. And that homeless downtowners are to blame.

And emails and op-eds speak of the need to break up downtown’s concentration of homeless social services. There’s a quality-of-life problem in this neighborhood, they wrote. And homelessness is to blame.

Sonny Iverson finds this recent assault on the city’s homeless residents “frustrating.” He works full-time in homeless outreach and was also homeless from age 18 to 27.

“They’re just targeting poverty,” he said of city policy and recent attitudes.

Sister Libby Fernandez at Loaves & Fishes said she’s also well aware hat Sacto homelessness is always in the crosshairs. “It’s a cat and mouse game, forever,” she said.

Both Fernandez and Iverson reminded that shelters are wait-listed, in some cases upward of 200 persons.

“And until they can get into the shelter, they have nowhere to go except the rivers and the alleyways,” Iverson said.

Do we really need a refresher course on the Great Recession? Companies folded, jobs vanished. City revenues plummeted, unprecedented belt-tightening ensued. Seniors, middle-class homeowners, students, children—and, yes, homeless Sacramentans were impacted, in some cases, devastated.

New faces joined the ranks of the region’s least fortunate—you know, our fellow residents who don’t even have a place to reside. They looked to the city’s single-room occupancy hotels and shelter programs for hope. But the number of SROs has taken a big hit in the past 15 years, and shelter beds are scarce.

Soon, a “tent city” popped up just north of downtown near the American River. Thousands converged on the encampment, as did The Oprah Winfrey Show, which came to town to highlight Sacramento as Homelessness Capital USA. Regional leaders vowed to find solutions.

But they didn’t. And budget cuts to mental-health, social-service and homeless-outreach programs persisted. The number of parkway rangers fell by more than half—what was an illegal-camping problem devolved into a lawlessness problem. City police officers on the “homeless beat” were reassigned. Donations to nonprofits such as Loaves & Fishes dropped off. The recession pushed homeless downtowners to the edge.

And now, people want to shove them over?