March 16, 2016 - From the March, 2016 issue

Are Tent Cities a Solution to Urban Homelessness?

Sacramento representatives recently toured Seattle’s tent cities, a model Sacramento may adopt and adapt to help resolve the city’s growing issue with homelessness. TPR checked in with Sacramento City Councilmember Jay Schenirer, who chairs a subcommittee to explore solutions for homelessness, to hear take-aways from the visit and gain insight into other housing initiatives under consideration—with the understanding that urban centers across the state are facing these same challenges.

Jay Schenirer

"If we were to do something similar [to Seattle] in Sacramento—and that’s a big “if,” still—we would want to make sure it is part of our continuum of care. I can imagine either a tiny-house village or a tent encampment that is a triage center, where folks could go for some period of time on their way into permanent housing.” -Jay Schenirer

Homelessness is a growing challenge for many California cities. Sacramento is certainly confronting the need for increased shelter for those now unsheltered in your downtown and neighborhoods. Could you elaborate on how your City Council is responding?

Jay Schenirer: The challenge has been relatively constant as far as our number of homeless. Obviously, Sacramento has good weather and a nice environment. As we have more people, we have more homeless moving into the area. We have a total of about 2,600 homeless in our last count. Of those, about 1,000 are unsheltered.

We on the City Council are working on two fronts. First, as a long-term solution, how do we get housing and put people in it? We’ve done a pretty good job of that over the last five years or so—putting 2,600 people into permanent housing.

The other challenge is: What do we do immediately for those who are on the street day-to-day?

Most programs for the homeless—federal, state, and local—have been focused on getting people into housing. Sacramento’s City Council is now challenged to authorize a “tent city” modeled after a Seattle initiative. How does the tent-city option compare and contrast with other programmatic efforts underway to house the unsheltered? 

We’re looking at short-term solutions. We have quite a few people and families who are out on the streets every night. That’s not an acceptable situation.

We took a delegation of about 20—four city councilmembers, our city manager, and representatives of the police department and other departments—up to Seattle to take a look at their tent cities. We think things that they’re doing might be applicable here. We’re just starting that discussion.

Seattle has tent encampments that have been around for up to 17 years. We met some individuals who had been living in those encampments for eight to 10 years and have no desire to get into permanent housing. If we were to do something similar in Sacramento—and that’s a big “if,” still—we would want to make sure it is part of our continuum of care. I can imagine either a tiny-house village or a tent encampment that is a triage center, where folks could go for some period of time on their way into permanent housing. That is a difference between what Seattle is doing today and what we might envision.

You serve as chair of the City Council subcommittee appointed by Mayor Johnson to explore ways for the city to address homelessness. What is the array of policy approaches being considered? 

It’s fairly early in the discussion, but we’re looking at how we can work better with our county. The county has pushed homeless folks living on the river into the city. We try to work with those same folks, but pushing people back and forth isn’t really a solution. A better relationship with the county could also mean working with their health department around some of the church feedings that happen downtown, because there are problems in terms of health and sanitation.

Our anti-camping ordinance means people are not allowed to sleep in Sacramento overnight. When people do, they get citations and have to go through the court system. We’re looking at alternatives, since going through the court system is costly for everyone. For the most part, these folks don’t have money to pay tickets. Is there something else we can do to put them back into programs, and possibly get them to do work for the community itself?

We want to focus most of our resources on long-term and permanent housing. Sutter Health has issued a challenge where they’re willing to put at least $5 million matching dollars up to other business donations to look regionally at our homeless situation. They recently convened, I believe, 31 elected officials from seven different counties around Sacramento to look at how we can all work together. A non-profit called Sacramento Steps Forward is the main driving force behind the permanent housing strategy. We’re trying to make sure that all the counties are invested in Sacramento Steps Forward and on the same page.

You’re a veteran regionalist. Your mentor, former Senate President Pro Tem Steinberg, focused much of his legislative career on encouraging regional policymaking. Describe for our readers the challenge of coordinating city and county resources to better tackle a problem like homelessness.

It’s certainly a challenge. Part of that is always presented by funding streams. The county is the recipient of both state and federal dollars to deal with this problem. The city is not part of those funding streams, although we have dipped into our general fund in the last few years to try to do more about homelessness. We’re getting to a point where all of the localities in the region see that we have a problem, because homelessness is not just in Downtown Sacramento right now. It’s in neighborhoods and in the suburbs. People are starting to say, “We have to do something.” It’s an opportune time now.

We also have a large turnover in leadership. We’re getting a new county executive. After November, we’ll have a new city manager, and after January, a new mayor in Sacramento. Our SACOG director is leaving at the end of the year, and we’re currently in the search process for a general manager of regional transit. Our hope is that all of the folks doing those searches—and we’ve talked about it—are looking for individuals thinking about regionalism.

As we get this new crop of leadership into our bureaucracies throughout the region, hopefully we can look together toward answers. There are issues that lend themselves to regionalism: homelessness, transportation, and air quality. Discussions are starting to happen, across the board, about how we can work together better—not just the city and the county, but also the city, surrounding cities, and surrounding counties.

The Sacramento City Council and the mayor are currently facing a demand from an attorney who represents an advocacy group, Safe Ground Sacramento. The pressure from the latter is intense, the frustration great—perhaps a microcosm of national populous reactions to the perceived failure of government to deliver. How do you personally deal with a negative political environment when seeking an intelligent, complex policy decision that requires consensus?


It’s very difficult. Frankly, I think you have to look at your own core values, and ask, “What’s important to me? How much heat am I willing to take to do the right thing?”

We met with four city councilmembers while we were in Seattle who talked about the tent encampments. These four individuals are supportive at this point, but not all of them were supportive when they started their terms.

They told the same story over and over again. In Seattle, the encampments rotate to a different site every 90 days. When they were going to site an encampment, the neighbors would come with torches and pitchforks at the beginning, but by the end, the communities are generally sad to see the encampments go. Folks in the encampments provide additional security and safety for the neighborhood. They do their walk-arounds two blocks outside of the encampment. They pick up garbage. A lot of these communities have adopted the encampments and they provide clothing and blankets. Hopefully, you strategize and find allies in the neighborhoods where you might want to go.

I think the most interesting piece of data is that there was not a single police call about any of the sanctioned encampments in Seattle last year. That’s pretty remarkable.

Please link Sacramento’s efforts to address homelessness to California state policy on housing, healthcare, and the integration of resources. How do state policies and funding streams affect local decision-making options?

The absence of redevelopment has had a profound impact on the city. It has severely limited our resources, our flexibility, and our ability to provide housing, so we have to be more creative.

The City of Sacramento has seen the biggest impact. As the overall budget loosens up a little bit, there’s more transportation money and more money around the edges. But, as I mentioned, the bulk of the funding on homelessness and housing comes through the county—which is what dictates the need for a better relationship between the city and the county in Sacramento.

As this interview draws to a close, share your thought process on how the petition for a tent city in Sacramento will be processed and could evolve. What is the expected timeline? 

I think the letter and request from Safe Ground Sacramento are a bit premature. Their attorney and I have talked about that.

I believe that our subcommittee will provide recommendations to City Council in mid-April. That’s the timeline that the mayor suggested when he appointed us. Those recommendations could include a tent city or a tiny-houses village, among other things that I mentioned earlier.

At that point, the Council will have a policy discussion about the direction it wants to go. If the Council decides it wants to pilot one or two of these types of encampments, then we’ll set up the permit process and move forward. I think this conversation will be a four to six month process.

Talking about specific sites, neighborhoods, or even council districts is premature. If we do that, the conversation is going to immediately focus on: “Where are you putting these?” versus “Is this the right thing to do? How would it fit into the continuum of care? Where would the support be?” 

Let’s close by affording you the opportunity to share your Sacramento experience with local officials throughout the state. How might they best address homelessness?

This is a very tough issue, but highly important. I just saw a survey by one of our mayoral candidates in which homelessness was the No. 1 issue facing people in Sacramento, in their minds. Homeless moving into neighborhoods and parks is changing the equation and the conversation. We have to take action. We have to do what’s right for those who are less fortunate than us.

At the same time, I’d like to see cities and counties having these discussions in lots of different venues to make sure we understand what might be working in other places that we could bring to Sacramento. We went down to see the attended restrooms in San Francisco, and that’s something we’re going to pilot. I think we all need to learn from each other as we tackle this really difficult situation.


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