Sacramento City Council authorizes City Manager to create new safe ground sites

Responding to the urgent need to address homeless encampments on city sidewalks and other public properties, the Sacramento City Council on Aug. 1 authorized City Manager Howard Chan to step up enforcement of existing city ordinances and to create more safe ground sites around the city.

The Council voted 5-4 to give the City Manager the authority to pick safe camping sites and spend up to $5 million to open them without coming back to the City Council for approval.

By creating a single point of authority, the vote is intended to make it easier and faster to establish hundreds of safe camping spaces, which will then allow the city to legally require people camping on sidewalks and other public spaces to move.

Councilmembers also reaffirmed their support for ordinances requiring that sidewalks remain clear, campers be limited to possessing life essentials and buffers be maintained around schools, utilities, flood control facilities, police and fire stations and other critical infrastructure.

By a 7-2 vote, the Council authorized the launch of a more rapid response to violations of city ordinances, in large part by having employees work overtime.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg and members of the Council said they supported more rigorous and rapid enforcement of City codes to ensure a clean and safe city but added that without more spaces for people to go, such enforcement would produce little result except moving people from block to block.

“The increased compliance item we just passed was necessary, but ultimately it will be hollow unless we do everything in our power to get people off the streets and get them the help they need,” Steinberg said. “This is common sense. When we do move people, it does in fact beg the question: Where are they going to go?”

The City operates more than 1,100 shelter beds and motel rooms every night, but they are generally full. Ongoing efforts to create tiny home villages are making significant progress but won’t be completed for months.

San Diego and Portland have been pursuing similar approaches to expanding safe camping grounds while increasing enforcement. All three cities operate under the Martin v. Boise court case, in which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that cities cannot enforce camping bans without offering campers somewhere else to go.

The Council gave Chan considerable latitude when it comes to determining how safe camping sites will operate. Steinberg and Council members asked him to include good neighbor policies, offer campers some level of dignity and sanitation and try to achieve geographic diversity.

Council members said they expect Sacramento County will provide behavioral health services as required by the legally binding partnership agreement between the two local governments.

Steinberg cited the City’s safe ground site at Miller Park as an example of how having more capacity for sanctioned camping can help. The 60-tent safe camping site has been opening in stages since July 10 to accommodate the workload of processing new entries, and each day the allotted slots have filled quickly.

The new tents now house people who came directly from encampments designated as Level 1 by the City due to their size and the threat they pose to public health and safety. These include encampments at Alhambra and W Street; Traction Avenue, downtown and 28th and C streets.

Members of the business community turned out in force to support the enforcement and safe camping measures, citing the loss of businesses because customers and employees have become fearful of harassment or violence.

“I would like to see our community be safe and clean for all, whether you’re housed or unhoused,” said Rachael Brown, executive director of the Power Inn Alliance.

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