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City Council weighs in on safe ground

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Should a group of homeless people be allowed to camp together in Sacramento without outside monitoring?

Safe Ground Sacramento, a group of mostly homeless people, says it should have the right to be “self-governing” and to operate an overnight camp independently.

But a few Sacramento City Council members said they disagreed with that idea Tuesday.

The City Council held a workshop on the safe ground issue as part of its weekly meeting. Over the past two years, Safe Ground Sacramento has asked the city to dedicate land for a site where the homeless could camp legally overnight. The city has an ordinance that bans overnight camping.

One of the group’s key principles is that its members are “self-governing” and that operations are led by elected members, according to a presentation by Safe Ground Sacramento Executive Director Stephen Watters.

The group is a community of people with “common needs,” Watters said.

“People watch out for each other and provide mutual support,” he told the City Council. “The community spirit that develops has turned people’s lives around.”

The Safe Ground Sacramento group asks its members to be drug- and alcohol-free and to not engage in violence. Members of the group camp overnight together, despite the camping ban.

But Councilman Rob Fong disagreed with the self-governance principle.

“I am not comfortable with a self-governing population,” Fong said. “I know that everyone I’ve talked to suggests that there needs to be a programmatic aspect to transitioning people out of homelessness.”

Homeless people need to be matched up with social services to help them find permanent housing, Fong said.

Mayor Kevin Johnson said he supported the safe ground idea but wanted the group to link to a social services program.

Councilman Kevin McCarty mentioned the model at Quinn Cottages, which combines housing with social services.

While Safe Ground Sacramento regularly lobbies the City Council to set aside land for homeless people to stay overnight, a spot has still not been selected.

Watters discussed the thorny issue of finding a location in an April 12 statement sent to City Council members.

“Members of the Safe Ground Sacramento Site Development Team, after concluding a series of meetings, have been unable to select an appropriate location that could be developed as a long-term housing site from the list of more than 1,900 city-owned properties provided by city staff,” Watters wrote.

“Parcels deemed appropriate based on size, proximity to public transit (i.e. Regional Transit bus and light rail stops), and other locational factors were found unacceptable due to various ecological, political and existing city planning factors when investigated in depth by the joint city / Safe Ground team.”

The group is now searching for two kinds of locations – an 18-month site as well as a permanent spot – and working on building relationships with the city and county governments and local business sector, Watters wrote.

No specific date for deciding a location was set Tuesday.

Read Watters’ statement here. 

Kathleen Haley is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. 

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