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Sacramento council OKs ‘Safe Ground’ ordinance. Where will sanctioned homeless camps go?

The city of Sacramento will allow small sanctioned homeless encampments to open in vacant lots across the city, where up to 80 people can sleep in tents, vehicles or tiny homes.

The Sacramento City Council on Tuesday voted to create a temporary emergency ordinance to allow so-called “Safe Grounds” — a lower-cost shelter model homeless activists have been demanding for years.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said he wants the city to open 63 tiny homes within 50 days, including 33 within the first 30 days — a slightly slower timeframe than he announced last week. The council is expected to consider that “addendum” to the ordinance at a meeting Jan. 26. If the council approves, city staff will order the tiny homes after that vote, said Steinberg spokeswoman Mary Lynne Vellinga.

Council members will be in charge of choosing the sites, but Steinberg indicated he will not allow them to drag their feet or let “not in my backyard” campaigns kill projects.

“I might become unpopular among many of you because I’m gonna be real pushy here,” Steinberg said during the meeting Tuesday, addressing his eight colleagues, three of whom were sworn in last month. “We have got to exercise this muscle that’s represented by this resolution.”

The council was largely on board with the idea, but one new council member was not. Councilman Sean Loloee voted against the ordinance, expressing concern that his North Sacramento district would have more sites open than others. His district currently has the city’s only homeless tiny homes — two dozen for homeless young people, which opened in June.

“When I read this, I don’t see a guarantee that’s bringing to the community that says if we can present these sites, X percentage of the current homeless situation in D2 will go away,” Loloee said. “When you look at the (city staff) report, we’re on top of the list as far as available sites. So I’m a little bit concerned.”

The ordinance will allow the Safe Grounds to open on properties zoned for assembly uses, such as churches, according to a city staff report. It will also allow them to open on industrial or commercial-zoned properties that are a half mile from temporary residential shelters and 500 feet from schools, child care facilities, parks and museums.

City Councilwoman Katie Valenzuela suggested the council allow more than 24 people camp at the sites, remove the museum buffer, and also enact a 300-foot buffer instead of 500 feet. The council ended up raising the 24-person max to 80, but did not adopt her other suggestions.

Valenzuela, who represents the central city and Land Park, has already named potential Safe Ground sites — a gravel lot on Front Street next to the California Automobile Museum, which could fit 60 tiny homes if the property owner agrees. Valenzuela is also exploring a garage at Capitol Avenue and 21st Street and a portion of the Amtrak train station parking lot as options for safe tent and car camping, she said.

The ordinance will likely not allow sites at those locations, but they might be allowed under an exemption.

“We have several encampments under the W-X freeway that are gonna be moved when Caltrans starts construction very soon,” said Valenzuela. “Part of the urgency I feel to identify sites in D4 is really with that in mind.”

Cost, location of homeless camps

The Downtown Sacramento Partnership, Midtown Association, and five other associations requested in a September letter that the council include single-family houses and duplexes in the 500-foot buffer. The River District, the group representing the area just north of downtown, sent a letter asking for that area to be exempt altogether due to an “over concentration of services” in the area. The council did not add ordinance language granting those requests.

The cost to get the Safe Ground or tiny homes up and running will be about $300,000 to $780,000, with annual ongoing costs of between $24,000 and $600,000, the staff report said. The cost will partly depend on if officials include services at the sites, including services to help people find permanent housing. The projected costs are much lower than the $5 million to $10 million it costs the city to open and operate large shelters for two years.

In July, amid the coronavirus pandemic, activists opened a Safe Ground site in Alkali Flat, with about a dozen tents, bathrooms, showers, clean drinking water and security. Steinberg expressed support, saying he wanted to buy 500 tiny homes to place at Safe Grounds across the city. Over the summer, the city bought eight, which can be constructed in a matter of minutes, but they’ve been sitting at a city lot unused.

The emergency Safe Ground ordinance will expire whenever the city’s “shelter crisis” declaration expires. The declaration, which the council renewed earlier this month, should not expire anytime soon, Vellinga said.

The council is planning to adopt a more extensive homeless “master plan” in June, which Steinberg proposed. With homeless activists urging the city take action sooner to help homeless this winter, the council adopted the Safe Ground ordinance as a first step.

“We need a win,” said Councilman Jeff Harris, who represents East Sacramento and the River District. “The quickest win is the Safe Ground model ... it takes pressure of the street so we need that. We need it right away.”


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