Laura Nussbaum doesn’t want to hear any more promises from Sacramento city leaders about finding shelter or housing. She said she’s heard those empty words before.
The 46-year-old former bookkeeper lives in a tent along the Sacramento River at a homeless encampment that overlooks the downtown skyline. She’s been without a permanent home for five years.
“I’m trying to get housing. But I’m just trying to do it by getting a job and getting it on my own,” the Sacramento native said in late January, on her way to a women’s empowerment training. “After so many times of people coming down and saying they’re going to help and then not showing up ever again, I realized that I have to do it myself.”
For years, city leaders have pledged to open more shelter space for the thousands of Sacramentans living on the streets, under freeways and along riverbanks. In recent months, officials said in press releases and interviews that they would open two new “safe ground” camping sites by January, along with a permanent “respite center” where homeless residents can take shelter during winter storms and summer heat waves. Those timelines came and went.
Then, nearly a year after the city opened its first two safe grounds, it launched a new site at Miller Regional Park early this week. The safe camping ground near Broadway and Front Street along the Sacramento River has 60 uniform tents colored blue, gray and orange in a single-file line along the park’s main road. It is expected to accommodate unhoused residents from the Southside Park and downtown areas.
But even with this opening, homelessness advocates, business owners and residents have all asked: Why has it taken so long to open new shelter space in Sacramento?
The delays come after a year that saw record deaths among homeless people in Sacramento County, including during heat waves and rain storms. The stalled efforts and missed deadlines took place amid persistent calls from advocates to open additional shelters.
City officials told CapRadio they’re still working on plans. They want to debut another safe camping site on private land along the Sacramento River, this one north of downtown, and a respite center at the city’s former Powerhouse Science Center on Auburn Boulevard. One council member has also suggested a potential safe parking site at Sutter’s Landing Regional Park north of Midtown.
But city staff and council members say roadblocks — from layers of red tape and neighborhood opposition to concerns from unhoused residents — have complicated their efforts and made the rapid opening of sites unrealistic.
“There really is no playbook for how to do this,” said Gregg Fishman, spokesperson for the city’s Department of Community Response, which is tasked with helping open the shelters. “Each site has different needs before it can be a viable site for people experiencing homelessness. We’re working through those as quickly as we can.”
Meanwhile, residents and business owners have grown impatient as homeless encampments have expanded across the city. That tension recently played out during a December City Council meeting. Dozens of people pushed back against Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s plan to restrict the towing of vehicles used by homeless residents, and it ultimately was defeated.
At the same time, advocates for unhoused residents say the city isn’t moving fast enough to open more shelters. They said this leaves people living outdoors vulnerable during the coldest time of the year, and takes an emotional toll on those waiting for shelter. Opening city-sanctioned camping and respite centers should be a bare minimum, they said.
“There’s a loss of trust,” said Shannon Dominguez-Stevens, program manager at Maryhouse, which serves homeless women and families at Sacramento’s Loaves & Fishes. “The implication is that our guests and the people that we serve just don’t matter enough to move with haste.”
Still, in one Sacramento neighborhood, residents say the city should have been more deliberate about its safe ground plans.
Residents feel like part of a homelessness safe ground ‘experiment’
In March 2021, Sacramento opened its first two city-sanctioned safe grounds. They offer people experiencing homelessness a place to legally sleep outside in tents or vehicles without fear of eviction or arrest. The temporary sites are located under the W/X freeway across from downtown’s Southside Park, and on a city-owned dirt lot near the marina. They provide security, wash stations and toilets. They also link residents with housing and health care services. The city says 191 people, or 42% of the residents served at the W/X site, moved on to some type of shelter or housing.
The sites are considered “low barrier,” which means residents can bring their pets and all of their belongings, and they can come and go as they please. They can be struggling with a mental illness or an addiction so long as they don’t partake in substances while at camp, according to a city spokesperson.
But despite being a key part of Sacramento’s comprehensive homelesseness strategy that City Council passed in August, no new safe grounds have opened in nearly a year.
This ambitious blueprint calls for adding thousands of temporary shelter spaces — from tiny homes and respite centers to safe camping and parking sites — at 20 locations citywide. It was spearheaded by Steinberg with the goal of ensuring sites open in each council district.
While there are efforts to open new locations, the city is in the process of shutting down its first safe ground near Southside Park. City contractors have relocated most residents there to other shelters. What remains are dozens of tents, trailers and RVs owned by homeless people who moved to the surrounding neighborhood, attracted by the site’s opening.
Gordon Lane, president of the Southside Park Neighborhood Association, said he’s not surprised other safe grounds haven’t opened. “People saw what was happening,” he said, referring to the arrival of more unhoused residents than the W/X safe ground could support, and along with them piles of trash. “It made them a lot less willing to accept them in their neighborhoods.”
Kristin Kazamaki, the association’s vice president, said the neighborhood group initially backed the opening of the site and still supports its mission. But she and Lane agree the effort was marred by the city’s lack of a plan to prevent the safe ground from becoming a magnet.
“We are this experiment,” Kazamaki said. “I don’t know that we would sign up again” without plans to address the unintended consequences.
Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
Officials said they’ve learned lessons from the W/X site, including the need to find shelter for those who move near the safe grounds.
“We need to be ready for a much stronger influx [of unhoused residents] and have a solid plan in place,” said Skyler Henry, a spokesperson for Council member Katie Valenzuela.
The city selected Miller Regional Park as a safe ground, in part, because it is easier to control access than the W/X site, Henry said. The park has only two roads and is separated from neighborhoods by Interstate 5. Camping won’t be allowed outside its designated safe ground area, he added. Access to the river and marina will not be affected, according to the city.
‘Everybody wants to do something’ but ‘they don’t want it in their neighborhood’
While more safe grounds are planned, officials said Sacramentans shouldn’t expect to see them pop up right away. It takes time to convince neighborhoods to accept them, and for the city to comply with necessary regulations, Henry said.
“There’s a hundred hoops to jump through,” explained Henry from Valenzuela’s office. He referred to the health and safety regulations officials must comply with before opening a new safe ground.
Advocates still say the city isn’t jumping fast enough.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Faye Wilson Kennedy, co-chairperson of the Sacramento Poor People’s Campaign, a group that advocates for people experiencing homelessness. “You and I are housed. Imagine for folks living outside how they feel. I thought things would have been moving a lot faster by now.”
Safe grounds are meant to address concerns about the growing number of encampments that have formed in recent years along riverbanks, in neighborhoods and business districts. The city estimates it could provide shelter for about 3,600 people if it follows through with the homelesseness blueprint passed in August, which calls for safe grounds citywide.
So far, however, safe grounds have only opened in the central city.
Until last year’s redistricting, City Councilman Jeff Harris represented East Sacramento and communities north of downtown where many homelessness services organizations are located. He now represents Natomas. Harris said he’s not surprised about the slow pace of opening safe grounds, given the “tremendous pushback” they create.
“What we’re up against in Sacramento is everybody wants to do something about homelessness. But they definitely don’t want it in their neighborhood,” he said.
Further complicating things, Harris said the city doesn’t have full control over some sites because they’re undergoing environmental work by other agencies. It has greater control over the 102 acres it recently purchased in Meadowview, a parcel of land at the southernmost end of the city limits, and should focus on opening a safe parking site there, Harris said. The city paid the federal government $12.3 million for the property, and the deal requires a quarter of the land be used for affordable housing.
But it may take years to develop that site in Meadowview, and there will remain thousands of homeless residents who still need assistance.
“This is really the only thing we can do near-term,” Valenzuela said of the safe grounds. “Big sites like [in Meadowview], they are exciting. But they take time to set up. They take resources.”
Referring to the immediate crisis on the streets, Valenzuela said her constituents ask her, “What are we going to do today?”
The most recent point-in-time count found 5,570 homeless people in Sacramento County. But researchers say the 2019 survey, which recruits volunteers to tally unhoused people over a series of nights, undercounts large portions of a region’s homeless population, including those who might be staying in a motel for the night or couch-surfing. Sacramento Steps Forward, the nonprofit that runs the local count, estimates up to 11,000 people experience homelessness the county each year.
The county’s next homelessness survey is scheduled for Feb. 23 and 24. Experts and local officials expect there will be a significant increase in people counted due to the economic effects of the pandemic and the region's continued high housing costs.
Waiting by the river for housing
Sacramento’s homeless encampments are a common site under freeways and along sidewalks in the central city. But they’re also part of the landscape along its riverbanks. There are between 800 and 1,000 homeless people who live along the American River Parkway alone, according to Leonard Orman, Sacramento County’s chief park ranger.
Nussbaum, the former bookkeeper and homeless resident, lives near the Sacramento River amid towering oaks and tall grass in an encampment with about five dozen people and their canine companions.
She lives in a tent next to Twana James, who serves as the camp’s “unofficial mayor.” James, 53, said she could live indoors but instead chooses the close-knit community off Garden Highway that residents call Bannon Island. She gets satisfaction from gathering food for neighbors, especially the elders, coordinating trash pickups and solving disputes.
She called the camp “a family,” not so different from those with permanent homes. “We have our fights. But if something happened to one of us, we come together. We’re good people. We’re humans. We sit like them. We eat like them. We’re no different than them, we’re just in a hard time.”
City officials approached James early last year about finding shelter for those at the encampment, where some have lived for two decades.
The city’s plan would open a safe ground camping site on a nearby lot owned by the Sierra Health Foundation. So far, it is the only private entity to donate land for this purpose, something Steinberg has asked of more businesses. The small grassy patch is yards from the existing Bannon Island camp, which is more spread-out.
The problem? Residents at Bannon Island are worried the new location would be even more prone to flooding than their existing camp.
James said residents want to work with local officials to find permanent housing. The timeline for the new safe ground has already been pushed back. “They told us January 1 we’d be here,” James said the final week of the month, standing near the proposed site.
Fishman, the city spokesperson, says plans for the riverfront safe ground are uncertain.
“We need to know for sure if the Bannon Island group is going to want that location or not,” he said.
Stalled plans to open indoor shelter during storms or heatwaves
It’s not just safe grounds that have seen delays.
The city has yet to open a permanent respite center for unhoused people to escape the cold rains or punishing heat. In calling for these overnight, walk-in centers, advocates have pointed to the growing number of deaths of homeless residents during winter months.
The city has struggled to open the facilities, often called warming or cooling centers, for more than a couple nights at a time due to what officials said is a shortage of staff trained to handle operations. When they do launch, few people take advantage of them because the word doesn’t always get out to the unhoused community, according to advocates. Another barrier is the lack of transportation to the centers.
In January, the City Council approved a staffing agreement with a nonprofit group that will allow the city to open the centers for longer periods of time. Still, promises to open a permanent respite center have yet to materialize.
Following a rainstorm in mid-December, Steinberg told CapRadio that he hopes “over the next week or so we’re going to have a major announcement that is going to create a longer-term respite center.” He said the city is working with the county, and that “there’s not time to waste, obviously. The weather is bad.”
That announcement has yet to take place and could still be several weeks away.
Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
The plan the mayor referenced would convert the city’s former Powerhouse Science Center in North Sacramento into a permanent respite center. But the site is undergoing construction and a neighboring Children’s Receiving Home, which serves foster youth, has raised security concerns about the plans, said Fishman.
Despite the delays, Sacramento officials say they have opened some significant homelessness projects in recent years. They point to the X Street homeless shelter that opened in September along with the Meadowview shelter for women and children and tiny cabin community for transitional-age youth, both of which opened in 2020.
In January, the city was awarded $24 million to convert a downtown hotel into 92-units of homeless housing, which officials said could open this fall.
Advocates said the plans are promising, but urged leaders to act quickly.
“It’s been a really painfully slow process,” said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Coalition to End Homelessness. He added officials should have been more proactive in vetting sites in the comprehensive homelessness plan to ensure projects opened sooner.
The coalition published a timeline this week documenting “a year of disjointed implementation and broken promises” of the city’s comprehensive homeless plan.
Erlenbusch described the delay in opening the permanent respite center as part of the city’s “trail of unkept promises.”
Bridgette Dean, the director of the Department of Community Response, said she is also frustrated by the slow pace of progress.
“But I think what people need to realize is we have a massive population on our hands who have been experiencing homelessness and trauma for a very long time,” Dean said, noting it takes time and commitment to work with them.
“Opening the [shelter] spaces, it’s not going to happen overnight,” she added. “We cannot turn back these numbers in six months, one year or two years. It will be a process.”
The city’s next step in that process is a safe camping site at Miller Regional Park.
Last week, crews erected 60 tents in a single file line alongside the park’s main road. They placed sandbags at the base of the tents to stabilize them and chain-link fencing to serve as a barrier between the new safe ground and the rest of the park.
The first residents — 10 people who remained at the W/X safe ground – are expected to take shelter there early this week.
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