The Sacramento City Council voted 8 to 1 on Tuesday to approve the “safe ground” ordinance, a framework for allowing homeless encampments and tiny homes on properties that meet certain safety requirements.
City leaders hope the new sites — which would be home to a maximum of 80 people sheltered inside tents, cabins or similar structures — will result in safe alternatives to the many make-shift homeless campgrounds that dot Sacramento’s urban core and line its river banks.
The public was encouraged to work with their council member to select the most viable sites, which have not yet been determined. A city staff report from October includes maps of potential sites, though city staff is still determining whether all of them are eligible.
All safe ground locations must be at least 500 feet from a school, daycare or museum. Each will require a permit, security, lighting, garbage pickup, an onsite manager and secure storage. Officials said the rules could allow churches, community groups or any other property owner to apply to use a vacant lot for a future safe ground site.
“The point of all of this is to alleviate the pain and the difficulty that the people on the streets and the affected communities are feeling,” Mayor Darrell Steinberg said at the meeting.
There were approximately 3,900 unhoused people in Sacramento in 2019, according to the county’s most recent tally. Most live outdoors, in cars, tents or abandoned buildings and many have moved to the city’s downtown during the pandemic. This year’s count was delayed due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Tuesday’s vote did not include money for future safe ground sites, though the council is expected to consider purchasing some tiny homes next week to kick-start the initiative.
Council Member Sean Loloee was the lone ‘no’ vote, saying he needed more time to evaluate the proposal. Others, including council members Katie Valenzuela and Mai Vang, approved the rules but questioned whether safe ground sites will materialize without city funding, considering the many associated costs.
“Where is that money going to come from?” added Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, speaking during the meeting. “The city needs to provide the infrastructure and support.”
Some said the city is taking the wrong approach.
Teresa McDonald of Sacramento described the safe ground plan as a “Band-Aid,” that won’t truly help people living on the streets.
“Popping up shelters throughout the neighborhood [for] whoever wants them with no resources at the hands of the people who need it, is not a solution,” McDonald told the council by phone during the meeting’s public comment period. “It is just perpetuating the problem.”
Steinberg said he views the ordinance as a key step in addressing the immediate emergency of people living outside. He said, however, the city must continue to make progress on longer-term solutions such as the homelessness “master plan” he announced last month. That proposal would approve sites for housing shelters all at once rather than individually, with the goal of making it easier and faster to open them.
Also Tuesday, Steinberg introduced an addendum to the safe ground ordinance that outlines how it can be implemented. Council members are expected to vote on that next week. They’ll also be asked to purchase approximately 60 tiny homes for future safe ground sites “and make them operable” within two months, the mayor said.
“The only way we’re going to do it,” Steinberg said of opening the 60 tiny homes, “is by (council) members stepping forward and saying ‘I have this site.’ … We’ll work with the community and we’ll get people indoors.”
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