Sacramento's Tent Cities Still Bloom In Secret

Three months ago the mayor of Sacramento shut down a massive tent city that had grown on the outskirts of the California capital. Now there are some people placed in long-term housing, but no short-term solutions beyond overcrowded shelters. Meanwhile, tent cities still exist, hidden away from authorities. Ben Adler of Capital Public Radio has the story.

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Three months after police shut down Sacramento's sprawling Tent City, the California capital still has problems with remaining illegal encampments. There are still many homeless sleeping outdoors, some clustered in groups hiding from police. Critics say local officials aren't doing enough in the short term to get the homeless off the streets.

Capital Public Radio's Ben Adler has the story.

MARY SMITH: From out of the kitchen we're going to the bedroom.

BEN ADLER: Mary Smith is showing off her new home - a duplex in south Sacramento.

SMITH: Then we go out here, you'll see the laundry room.

ADLER: It's not big - just a living room, kitchen, one bed, one bath. But it's a major upgrade for Mary and her partner, Lance Miller, after being forced out of the Tent City. They moved to the Winter Overflow Shelter at the state fairgrounds. Then, about six weeks ago, Lance got a call offering permanent housing.

LANCE MILLER: Felt like I got a brand new Cadillac.

MILLER: Just felt rejoice and - to get my old lady off the street. And just thank the lord over and over.

ADLER: A Bible is open on a table next to their couch. There's an old TV, a new fridge and most importantly these days, an air conditioner. The walls are filled with color pictures printed off a computer of Lance, Mary and their families. They're hoping the stability of a new home will help them get back on their feet. In a year, Mary says, they hope to be able to pay their own rent.

SMITH: Got my own place. So, a house or apartment or, you know, if our year is up and then I'll move on and give it to another family that needs it.

ADLER: This is how Sacramento area officials want to fight homelessness - get the chronically homeless off the street and into permanent housing. Then help them find jobs, get adequate health care and live a stable life. The city and county are footing the bill.

Tim Brown is heading up the 10-year project. He's already found roofs for Lance and Mary and 60 other former Tent City residents. Brown says county statistics prove the approach is working.

TIM BROWN: We've decreased chronic homelessness - the toughest part of the population - by 35 percent. And it shows that if we really want to, we can end homelessness if we can provide enough housing and services.

JOAN BURKE: If you're one of the lucky people who got housing, that changes everything for you. The problem is the demand so far exceeds the supply.

ADLER: Homeless advocate Joan Burke says that demand is what makes a legal and long-term Tent City necessary. The Winter Overflow has closed for the summer - other shelters are full - and 1,200 people in Sacramento county don't have a place to sleep. So new encampments continue to pop up, and just as quickly, police have shut them down.

BURKE: For those who can't yet get into that housing, we are asking for safe ground, a legal campground, so they're not hounded from place-to-place. And they're not subject to citations and arrests.

ADLER: Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson has a taskforce researching solutions to homelessness, including whether a legal Tent City makes sense. But it won't release its recommendations until the fall. In the meantime, the mayor says...

KEVIN JOHNSON: We need to have tough love. And public safety is very important. And I do not believe that people should be able to camp, you know, illegally, anywhere in the city at this particular time.

ADLER: So Sacramento's homeless population is retreating back into the shadows and hiding from police. That's the case at this secret campsite in Sacramento's River District, north of downtown.


ADLER: One of the campers, Donna Davis(ph), says her group polices itself so it's no threat to public safety.

DONNA DAVIS: It's like a neighborhood watch. We watch out for each other's backs. We make sure there's no violence, drugs and alcohol. And then if there is, the community, which is five people, will talk about it and discuss what the further actions should be.

ADLER: A couple dozen people are scattered across a narrow strip of tree-lined land. Some have tents, others, sleeping bags. One man is reading a book on war tactics out loud.

Unidentified Man: Our minds have to be capable of keeping up with change and adapting to the unexpected.

ADLER: Tina Marie Bazerto(ph) is listening closely. She's bounced from the Tent City to the Winter Shelter and now she's living here.

TINA MARIE BAZERTO: We are all one body. And we just keep on moving. And it's nice to see we're all still together.

ADLER: Most people here would love a chance at permanent housing, but for now they just need a place to spend the night.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Adler in Sacramento.

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