Sidewalk Solutions

‘Safe Ground’ brings alternatives to street camps

By Gary Delsohn
September 2023

Our core city suffered blows in recent years. Early in 2020, with a Downtown renaissance underway, COVID-19 stopped everything. Two months later, protests over George Floyd’s murder turned destructive. Restaurants and businesses boarded up and closed.

With state employees working remotely and several deadly gun crimes generating news, the core was a ghost town, recovery a pipedream.

Today a fair amount of pre-pandemic energy is returning. The Kings’ brief playoff run brought thousands Downtown. Increased police presence made people feel safer. We still miss state workers, but restaurants are crowded and nightlife jumps again.

That’s why it’s good to see the city take a more aggressive approach to removing homeless encampments. A swarm of tents and litter at 28th and C streets was disbanded in July, with most occupants transferred to the expanding and city-sanctioned “safe ground” campsite at Miller Park.

Other illegal encampments remain. Tents encircle the old post office on I Street. The camp at 19th Street between J and K illegally blocks the sidewalk and features several aggressive, unleashed dogs and piles of junk.

Anyone with a heart can understand the encampments provide occupants some sense of community and safety, but tents need to be removed. Our community is fed up.

People living in deplorable conditions on the street, many with mental health and substance-abuse issues, aren’t getting help they need. Encampments are bad for businesses trying to make a comeback. There’s a major disconnect between officials promoting Downtown as safe, fun and on the way back while they allow a dangerous mess.

Much of the wrath, from the business community, media and others, is aimed at Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who campaigned on a promise to make progress on homelessness.

“The encampments need to go,” Steinberg says, “but we have to address the plight of people and we have to do it in a way that is not only legal, not only moral.”

He continues, “Absent any approved destination, people ejected from one spot often just move a few blocks away, which is an exercise in futility that leads to more frustration.”

Steinberg and his City Council colleagues have tried several approaches, but this has been a stubborn crisis. While there has been progress, including a tenfold increase in shelter beds since Steinberg took office, and the upcoming delivery of 350 “tiny homes,” Downtown encampments remain a blight.

Now, with the August approval of his resolution directing City Manager Howard Chan to quickly identify hundreds of additional “safe ground” encampment sites like those at Miller Park, Steinberg says the city has found “a potential game changer.” The mayor believes sanctioned camps provide a legal basis to move people off streets and sidewalks.

But the city’s partners need to do more. Depending on where they’re located, it’s a safe bet we’ll see neighborhood opposition to the new “safe ground” locations.

County government, now in partnership with the city, has to step up and provide more mental health and substance-abuse treatment and follow-up. Things need to happen more quickly.

District Attorney Thien Ho, who threatened the city with civil or criminal action for not following its own ban on encampments, needs to work more closely with law enforcement to get people into diversion and other programs.

The business community, quick to criticize, needs to offer solutions and resources to help create an all-hands approach that has proved effective in places such as San Antonio.

Steinberg knows skeptics will say the city isn’t doing enough. They are weary of hearing him and colleagues talk about the crisis. People want to see progress, not just hear about it.

“I don’t blame anyone for skepticism,” the mayor tells me. “This is about doing, not saying. But I do believe giving the city manager authority to create more safe grounds gives us a chance to answer what some people who complain never ask, which is, where are the people going to go?”

We should all hope the new approach works, and that others with a stake in solving this crisis do their part. When I revisit this problem in a few months, it would be great if there’s tangible progress everyone can see.

Gary Delsohn can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

Stay up-to-date with our always 100% local newsletter!

* indicates required
Type of Newsletter
Share via
Copy link