Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s proposal to create shelter for unhoused people evolved from an idea to a plan this week, with the City Council passing it unanimously after hours of public discussion.
The ambitious and contentious proposal greenlights city development of temporary and permanent housing for homeless residents, like “tiny homes,” safe parking and shelter under freeways. The 20 sites are expected to serve around 3,600 people.
While the plan doesn’t have a finalized budget, the Council allocated $100 million to fund it over the next two years. During the vote, council members also added language to the plan committing to community outreach and a focus on racial, geographic and socioeconomic equity in future siting decisions.
“It's about our common humanity,” Steinberg said on Tuesday. “And it is also about the condition of our city. There is nothing inconsistent with leading with a big heart. And at the same time, saying we want our city to be healthier, safer and cleaner.”
The mayor added that the city was having conversations with the county about collaboration and would release more details in the coming weeks.
Community members, though, expressed a variety of worries related to site locations, the commitment to more affordable housing and preserving homeless residents’ dignity.
Byron Maynard, who has operated a business on Commerce Circle in north Sacramento for the last 13 years, said that over the last year he’d seen 50 to 70 trailers camping in the area. He’s also seen human waste dumped down the storm drain, which isn’t legal for business owners.
“Customers and business owners don’t feel safe,” he said. “What you want to do here is fantastic, but there are some people who don’t want help. If they don’t, are you going to enforce the law?”
Western states, including California, are prohibited from criminalizing homelessness by punishing those who sleep outside with nowhere else to go, a law rooted in the Martin v. Boise ruling.
During a press conference on Wednesday, Steinberg said that, eventually, it would be fair to disallow unhoused people to stay in specific places, such as business corridors like Commerce Circle.
“Even if they refuse, I wouldn’t criminalize it, I wouldn’t fine them,” he said. “But if you’re offered a safe and dignified alternative, it’s fair to say you can’t live here.”
Another concern among community members and even elected officials was whether shelters under a freeway were safe and equitable. According to the plan, emergency shelters will be built under the downtown-Midtown freeway near W and X streets.
“We’re talking about the possibility of putting 600 individuals underneath the freeway,” Council member Jay Schneirer said. “How is that going to happen? How is that going to be absorbed by the community over what period of time?”
While enforcement of the plan is still a ways off, community members said they were concerned with the role law enforcement might take in getting unhoused people into sites.
The California Homeless Union, in tandem with its Sacramento chapter, issued a press release this week that strongly opposed the plan, calling it a “deceptive and dangerous con job” that attempted to circumvent the Martin v. Boise ruling, specifically criticizing Steinberg’s intention to propose a pair of rights — the right to housing and an obligation to accept it — in the near future. It compared the implementation to redlining and forced displacement of Native Americans and Japanese Americans.
“What would ‘an obligation to accept shelter’ look like in Sacramento?” the release asked. “Threats of arrest, prosecution, physical displacement, civil conservatorship against those who are unwilling to have their families separated? Personal possessions taken, personal freedoms of association and speech curtailed, the unhoused robbed of their dignity and the truth behind homelessness falsified?”
The union wasn’t the only one with concerns about autonomy of unhoused people, particularly the way that enforcement of that potential obligation would look in the future.
Attorney Cathleen Williams, who sits on the board of directors for Safe Ground Sacramento, an organization that advocates for the decriminalization of homelessness, said that all participation in city facilities needed to be voluntary and not coerced.
“This sets a dangerous precedent for segregation and warehousing of the poor,” Williams said. “We cannot base this plan on police power to force people into city-run encampments. We cannot continue to manage unhoused people through police displacement.”
Council member Mai Vang, whose district includes Meadowview, called homelessness a public health crisis and noted that the city’s shelter proposal, while a start, doesn’t address “the larger failure of a larger system that leads to homelessness.”
“We have to double down on affordable housing, otherwise we’ll end up here again,” she said.
Licensed psychologist Dr. Corrine McIntosh Sako said that the plan looked like the mayor “wanted to put a Band-Aid on the bleeding instead of stopping the wound at its source.”
“The plan is performative at best — it’s business-centered, politics-centered ... but it needs human-centeredness to be successful,” she said.
Six of the 20 priority sites laid out in the plan are dedicated to permanent housing through “tiny” and manufactured homes.