Update, Feb. 15:
In what might be viewed as a reversal, the city of Sacramento said this week it will reopen the Miller Park safe ground for unhoused residents, using 15 travel trailers as shelter. The trailers are intended to be temporary while the city works with Sacramento County to “identify longer-term sources of emergency shelter that will add hundreds of beds to the City’s current inventory of more than 1,100,” the city said on Feb. 14 in a news release.
The trailers were originally provided by Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration in April 2020 as part of the state’s emergency Covid response. Each sleeps up to three people. They were previously used at Cal Expo as quarantine housing during the pandemic, according to the city.
Original story, published Feb. 9:
An outdoor homeless shelter that was considered a stopgap in Sacramento’s efforts to provide immediate relief for unhoused residents has been shut down since early January. Its future remains in limbo.
For much of the past year, the Miller Regional Park safe ground, located west of Interstate 5 near downtown along the Sacramento River, allowed people experiencing homelessness to legally camp in one of 60 tents or live in their vehicle in dozens of available parking spaces. In a city where shelters are typically full, it was a go-to spot for people in need because it typically had extra capacity.
But when high winds and rising water levels from this winter’s powerful storms threatened the site, officials evacuated all residents and offered them temporary indoor shelter including motel vouchers.
Now, city officials say the site may never reopen despite the recent approval of a $3.2 million contract to keep it operating through the calendar year.
Sacramento City Council member Katie Valenzuela, a proponent of originally opening the site, says the city should immediately reopen the safe ground. She says City Manager Howard Chan “is refusing to reopen” it because he wants Sacramento County to take over its operation.
It remains shutdown even, as Valenzuela noted, after the City Council approved a contract in late January for First Step Communities to operate the safe ground through the calendar year.
Tim Swanson, a spokesperson for Chan, wrote in an email that the decision to currently keep Miller Park closed follows the City Council’s vote last October to shift funds away from temporary shelter to affordable housing.
He said the city is “exploring options to better leverage its limited resources and provide more cost effective and sustainable solutions,” but that a final decision about Miller Park has not yet been made.
“As we saw in the recent storm, Miller Park is not an ideal location for a safe ground due to its proximity to the river and vulnerability to the elements,” Swanson wrote.
He added that the city is “working to make its final determination on next steps for the Miller Park Safe Ground as soon as possible.” The city will not be required to pay First Step Communities if the safe ground remains closed, Swanson noted.
Valenzuela helped lead the shift away from temporary shelter and toward affordable housing. But she says that was done with the understanding that Sacramento would continue to pay for its existing shelters.
“The council direction has been clear, at least with this site, that we want to keep it going,” Valenzuela told CapRadio during an interview on Thursday. “To not open Miller Park is now just our abject failure to address an immediate crisis.”
The safe ground’s closure comes amid growing tension in Sacramento over the number of unhoused encampments, in particular near homes and businesses in the central city.
Midtown resident Julie Murphy says her neighborhood on G Street between 27th and 28th has seen a half-dozen homeless tents pop up during the first week of February. She said two tents now sit directly across the street from her house.
She added that she was “stunned to find out” from Valenzuela that the Miller Park safe ground remains shut down and that city officials now have few, if any, immediate shelter options to offer unhoused residents.
“There’s literally nowhere for them to go. I don’t think they should be shuffled back under the freeway,” Murphy said, referring to recent enforcement efforts that cleared unhoused residents from the sidewalks under the Business 80 freeway. “I want somewhere for them to go.”
Valenzuela said of the 453 people served at the Miller Park safe ground, about 40% had moved on to what the city describes as “a positive outcome,” meaning they received indoor shelter, reconnected with family members or were connected to a needed service.
Only about 10%, or 40 people, received permanent housing. “It sounds small,” Valenzuela said. “But it is something.”
City officials said they could not immediately provide an update on the current shelter or housing status of those who were previously staying at the Miller Park safe ground. Swanson wrote that all were “offered reasonable indoor accommodations.”
Last year, the city manager warned the council that the city could face a $40 million deficit for homeless shelter funding as early as summer 2023.
Chan said at the time Sacramento spends between $33 million and $40 million per year to maintain its existing 1,100 emergency shelter spaces, which are typically full on any given night.
This past December, the city and county reached a Homeless Services Partnership Agreement to share the burden and cost of addressing the region’s homelessness emergency. City leaders for years have urged the county to do more to confront the problem.
Contact CapRadio reporter Chris Nichols at [email protected]
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