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Sacramento Takes A Step Towards Ending Homelessness

Aug 13, 2023

By: Teddy Georgeoff

On Aug 1, 2023, the Sacramento city council heard from an impressive 36 members of the public, and thereafter spent an additional 3 hours in passionate debate. This resulted in the narrow 5-4 passage of the Ordinance Authorizing the City Manager to Implement a Temporary Shelter Program. The ordinance gives full authority to the City Manager, Howard Chan, to select locations and establish safe grounds for our homeless population.

This is the third time Mayor Darrell Steinberg has suggested a plan like this, but this was the first time he had a majority of support on the city council for it. The ordinance is targeting a very specific problem. As we astutely heard from Council Member Katie Valenzuela, enforcement of city code upon our unhoused population is in a constant state of displacement with no destination. This style of enforcement has harmful effects on the unhoused with no progress towards a solution. In addition, this type of shuffle-along policy is in direct violation of Martin v. Boise, which states cities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances if they do not have enough homeless shelter beds available. This makes our current practices not only ineffective, but illegal.

It has taken a few iterations of this ordinance to pass with previous versions being bogged down in deliberation due to the complexities of the negotiations and NIMBYism when choosing safe ground locations. With the passing of this ordinance, the City Manager will have full discretion and 60 days to select the city owned parcels of land among the 8 districts and move as many people into these safe shelter zones as is possible. These will be unmanaged zones to reduce cost, but the city will, by law, be forced to provide a “dignified” level of support to all who reside there. This “dignified” level is still up for discussion between the county, the City Manager, and City Attorney Susana Wood. This specific lack of clarity around the word “dignified” is a reason why Mayor Pro Tem Mai Vang, a supporter of safe ground, voted no on this ordinance as presented.

Although there were some dissenting opinions from the public, more praised the measure than protested it. “This is a dream I have had for 13 years,” a member of the public who helps with safe grounds said in public comment. “For the first time I agree with the mayor,” said a DSA member as he started his two minutes at the podium. After public comment, Caity Maple mentioned that she and Katie Valenzuela had been advocating for this since the first day they joined the council stating, “It’s kind of amazing that we are here.”

However, Council Member Karina Talamantes lashed out at the mayor and accused him of not visiting her district and for the lack of good neighbor policies in the ordinance. Her rationale that we don’t want to give the City Manager unilateral decision on this issue was thwarted by Vice Mayor Guerra’s reminder that it takes 5 votes to give him the power and 5 votes to remove that power should the council be dissatisfied with the city manager’s direction. Although the good neighbor policy was amended by Vice Mayor Guerra’s motion, Council Member Talamantes still voted no, seemingly out of frustration with the Mayor.

Safe ground is not a new concept and has been utilized successfully in places like San Diego, LA, and in many other states. Safe ground has some of the highest impact per dollar invested due to economies of scale and ease of creation. It becomes easier to ensure safety and provide services to the unhoused if the city gives them a sanctioned space to reside.

This ordinance does not come to us in perfection. There is a lack of clarity on the services that are required to be offered at each site. How can we be sure that these grounds are safe? There is debate on if Howard Chan, the City Manager, is the right person to drive this initiative, in addition there is a lack of metrics which define success. There is also a lack of specificity in the geodiversity of the plots to be selected outside of the mayor’s directive to the City Manager to “try your best”. Even with these faults, the council voted to pass in hopes that it will quickly show signs of progress for the city.

My Opinion:

After watching this debate unfold for over 6 hours, I have come to the following conclusions:

Human beings need a dignified place to reside. Given we have a fully utilized 1100 bed capacity to house our 10,000 unhoused people, this ordinance will be beneficial and could potentially lead to upwards of $5 million in funding to create a more permanent destination for our remaining 8900 unhoused citizens. We should continually advocate for the most vulnerable among us, and funding initiatives that favor solutions over bandaid enforcement is a key to success.

When the rest of the council rightfully asked for City Manager Chan to be receptive to public input, Council Member Sean Loloee of district 2, voiced an undemocratic opinion. Stating, “I don’t think, when it comes to the sites, advocates or activists really help the situation.” As someone who is supposed to represent the people, I find it disgraceful he would try to silence them. Or perhaps he thinks the public dumb and incapable? The experience of the social workers who are on the ground, and the homelessness population itself need to be involved in giving comments for this process to maximize success.

I will echo the council members in saying that we should not lose focus on the long term goal of housing for all, but until we are able to achieve this politically and financially, this is good policy. The council did well, although barely, to realize perfection should not be the enemy of progress and passed this step towards addressing our city’s homeless crisis.

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