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Dream a little bigger, Darrell

Updated: Jan 19, 2022

Darrell Steinberg talks a big game on homelessness, but his follow through leaves a lot to be desired.

August 10th’s city council meeting only had 1 agenda item: the city’s “Comprehensive Siting Plan to Address Homelessness” (initially called a “master plan” until some commenters called that out as problematic and Member Valenzuela requested the change). The text and specifics of the plan is available to read online, but the short version is that this plan puts forward multiple different sites for a variety of different unhoused programs and services to all be approved by the council simultaneously, so that they can cut past the bureaucracy and red tape of needing to approve each one individually. It also commits the city to developing these sites and spending money to do so, and includes language which allows the City Manager to bypass some existing fiscal restrictions.

The sites will include a number of different strategies, including motel renovation, safe parking sites, safe campsites, as well as some large campus sites. The meeting opened with a group of volunteer architects outlining some designs they had made for these various strategies, primarily for either “tiny houses” built into a portable trailer, or clusters of tents centered around a small courtyard with some shade.

In total, the city expects to be able to increase Sacramento’s total shelter/safe ground capacity to nearly 10 thousand individuals. Mayor Steinberg (pictured on the right) says he wants to spend $100 million on this, but the actual funding and budget specifics are not included in this item; they will be a subject for a future meeting.

This all seems fine and good on its face, but the plan is at best a half-measure, and even for a half-measure it is frequently also half-baked and significantly deficient in a number of ways. The 4 hour session included nearly 60 public comments, and setting aside the standard complaints from cranky privileged people whining about property values and how “unsafe” they feel because of the unhoused (huge eye roll) - aside from that, six prominent criticisms emerged:

1. Rich Neighborhoods don’t do their fair share.

Numerous members of the public expressed concern that, as of now, no sites have been proposed in the wealthier neighborhoods such as East Sacramento, Land Park, Pocket, and North Natomas. A significant portion of the existing new locations are targeted at downtown under the 50 freeway, and in South Sacramento. As stated by a local resident Dominic: “I don’t support this response, but the only time I’ve seen police respond to houseless people is during my time living in East Sac. Any time an unhoused person would wander into the area, a fleet of cops would roll up, as if there had just been a murder, and remove them. It is clear Sac PD has an unofficial policy to relocate houseless folks out of East Sac, and I suspect also Land Park. Looking at the proposed map, I see there are no sites in East Sac or Land Park. It is time that Sacramento’s wealthy bear their fair share of the burden of our inhuman housing disaster.”

2. Tents are not sufficient.

A significant portion of the city’s planned sites are what is known as “safe ground” sites, which amounts to essentially a standard homeless encampment, but in a location selected by the city. There are obviously some benefits to this but it flies in the face of all the big talk from Steinberg and others about “the dignity of housing” and other similar, apparently empty, rhetoric. One of the volunteer architects even said, “We can’t just plunk down 3 or 4 hundred tents on a big field,” but then proceeded to describe a design which does exactly that, except it sets the tents up in clusters of 5 or 6 instead, solving exactly zero of the weather-related problems that tents pose. On top of the obvious issues due to potentially lethal winter and summer weather, tents are by definition not a long-term housing solution and adding more of them does not address the actual issues unhoused people face; as Niki Jones, a district 5 resident, said in her comment, “Check in with people living outside about what they actually need, which I assure you is not just another tent controlled by you.

3. Plan says nothing at all about addressing systemic racism.

Many people brought up the fact that somehow, in the year 2021, a city council managed to bring forward a proposal to assist the unhoused that makes zero mention of how it will address systemic racism. Joe Smith from Loaves and Fishes put it very succinctly: “The community plan presented by advocates asked that any plan put forward by the city address systemic racism. No equity statement or actions to address systematic racism can be found in the plan as presented.” It is clear that the community demands a plan which ensures not only equitable treatment but in fact goes further in addressing how systemic racism fuels our housing crisis. In particular, a number of commenters suggested that an independent ombudsman be appointed to monitor the implementation of this plan and hold the city accountable.

4. Temporary shelters are a band-aid; we need more affordable housing.

Perhaps the strongest point against this plan is that it does not actually provide unhoused people with a permanent solution. Providing temporary housing is an important first step, true, but it is a journey ultimately doomed to fail without any sort of mechanism in place to a) create more permanent affordable housing, and b) get unhoused people moved into it. Several callers (as well as some city council members) seem more concerned with making sure that the “streets are cleaned up” and that property values stay high than they are with addressing the devastating conditions and inhumane tragedy that our unhoused neighbors suffer through, Even people like Mayor Steinberg, who know how to talk the talk on these issues, fail to actually walk the walk and include permanent affordable housing in their so-called “comprehensive plan”.

5. Homelessness must not be criminalized.

It was not explicitly included within this plan, but Mayor Steinburg has frequently been on the record saying that he wants to pair this expansion of short-term housing with a legal obligation for the unhoused to accept services. This amounts to the criminalization of homelessness, and both Steinberg and the few callers who support him on this should frankly be ashamed of themselves. Fortunately, several other callers were able to see this with more clarity than the mayor. Civil rights lawyer Cathleen Williams highlighted why this idea is dangerous, as well as showing how it ties in to the plan’s problem with systemic racism, due to its dependence on policing: “The plan is based on coercion and police driven management and displacement of unhoused people. In the absence of a focus on permanent housing, the plan sets a dangerous precedent for segregation and warehousing of the poor…We cannot base this plan on police power to force people into city run encampments.”

6. The unhoused community needs to be centered and involved in planning and implementation.

Rather than relying on coercion, a successful plan needs to involve the unhoused community directly in the planning and implementation processes, and the city has a ways to go in terms of rebuilding the broken trust between them and this community. Angela from Loaves and Fishes said it well: “The challenge of administering these sites will involve working to gain the trust of people experiencing homelessness. Many folks living unhoused have sustained compound and complex traumas that lead them to easily distrust new opportunities. For folks living moment to moment and struggling to find safety, plans often don’t provide safety until they come to fruition, and with this we recognize and validate that our unhoused community may have some very mixed feelings about this plan.

There are, of course, many more concerns with the plan besides these six, some of which were addressed in public comment, some that were not - and credit to Members Valenzuela and Vang for at least being willing to lend their own voices to the chorus of complaints.

Overall, the Comprehensive Plan does in fact contain necessary first steps, and because of that the City Council did unanimously vote to approve it. However, despite its name it is not remotely comprehensive, and we cannot allow ourselves to stop fighting for more.

This is not a win, it is not a solution, it is not an accomplishment; at most, this is a start. We all need to continue voicing these (and other) concerns: stay loud and agitate for the city to go much further, because if all we get is this plan, the unhoused crisis will not stop.

To conclude, here is a comment from Dr. Corrine MacIntosh-Sako, given at the meeting:

I support the sense of urgency and the desire to alleviate the suffering of those experiencing homelessness, however it seems like this mayor is wanting to put a bandaid on the wound versus stopping the bleeding at its source. Now I appreciate Mayor Steinberg’s drive to pass this initiative that looks to create more than 5,000 safe camping spaces, tiny homes, converted motel rooms, and shelter beds, as the city’s “serious response” to the crisis of homelessness. The Master Siting Plan as it sits before you tonight is performative at best. It’s business centered, politics centered, and property centered. It lacks the human-centeredness this plan needs in order to be successful. I’m gravely concerned that those individuals who are supposed to be at the heart of this plan - our unhoused community members - have not been at the center of the planning.

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