Homeless campers who live inside Sacramento's tent city will be asked to move to shelters and other indoor structures, officials said Thursday.
Responding to growing concern and criticism about the burgeoning homeless encampment north of downtown, Mayor Kevin Johnson announced a plan to move as many as 150 campers to "safer, more sanitary" grounds.
The Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which owns the bulk of the tent city property, plans to fence off the area within the next month, a spokeswoman said.
Homeless people have illegally camped in the area off the American River Parkway for years. But the issue took on new life when Oprah Winfrey featured it on a recent television program focusing on "the new faces" of homelessness.
The show sparked international interest and public outrage, prompting elected officials to convene meetings to figure out a solution.
Johnson has been meeting with a coalition of government leaders, property owners, homeless advocates and others during the past two weeks to discuss how to deal with the camp near the Blue Diamond Growers almond processing plant.
The resulting plan, to be brought before the City Council on Tuesday, calls for relocating the campers to various types of temporary and permanent indoor housing, including existing shelters and modular buildings at Cal Expo.
Funding for the project will include local redevelopment money, Johnson said. He said the exact costs and funding mechanisms will be laid out Tuesday, and that he is confident the money will be available. "People living around the river deserve respect and dignity," the mayor told a throng of news media. "For far too long, we've ignored the challenge."
But whether the men and women of the tent city are willing to take him up on his offer for more stable housing is an open question. Advocates for the homeless estimated that half to two-thirds of those who live at the encampment would be willing to move.
"If they give me a place to go, I'll go," Carol Carlile, 57, said outside of her tent on Thursday. "I want out of here. I want a place to live. I'm too old to be out."
But Norman Campo, who said he has been without a home for several years, resisted the idea. "Shelters are like institutions," he said.
But his options will soon be more limited. SMUD, which has been part of the mayor's task force on the topic, hopes to fence off the property some time within the next four weeks to pursue an upgrade of its substation there, said spokeswoman Elisabeth Brinton.
"We have been patient, working with city leaders and advocates and taking their lead," Brinton said. "We are committed to doing the right thing for the community. The stars are aligning to come up with solutions that can be long term and sustainable."
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The Winfrey show spurred a deluge of media attention around the world and a flurry of behind-the-scenes negotiations.
"The media coverage has been a change agent," said Joan Burke, advocacy director for Loaves & Fishes, which provides various services to homeless people in the area.
Johnson said he was fulfilling a campaign promise to confront the homelessness issue. Current conditions for homeless people in the capital city are "unsafe, unsanitary and irresponsible on our part," he said.
The city, he said, has identified 150 beds that can be used immediately for temporary and permanent housing for tent city residents. Fifty or more people could be housed in modular buildings at Cal Expo, Johnson said, adding that he is proposing that the winter homeless shelter there remain open until June 30.
Another 40 or more people could be placed in subsidized "shared housing" apartments, he said. The task force also has identified additional beds at existing shelters, he said.
Pets may be allowed at one or more of the shelters, he said, and lockers to store belongings also will be available in some areas.
The committee plans to survey "every single resident" at the tent city to find out whether they are willing to move, and if not, why not, Johnson said.
"If they're not comfortable for whatever reason, we are going to try to deal with those issues," he said. He acknowledged that some homeless people "just like living outdoors" and that a smaller legal encampment might be an option for them.
Advocates from Loaves & Fishes, who long have pushed for a legal encampment with basic services, said they are pleased by recent developments.
"I think there is a genuine awareness by the mayor and others that we have people living outside in very unsafe conditions, and there is a desire to to find them a better place," Burke said.
But some of the tent city residents are sure to refuse the city's offer, "and they're going to end up somewhere," said Loaves & Fishes executive director Sister Libby Fernandez. Fernandez said one or more legal encampments, perhaps at a state or city park, still will be needed.
Also, she said, campers represent just a fraction of the 1,200 people in the Sacramento area who are homeless.
"Loaves & Fishes is extremely grateful for Mayor Johnson's effort on this, and for the community support," Burke said. "Adding extra shelter beds is wonderful, but we're going to need more. We are going to need multiple solutions to meet the needs of all of these people."