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Safe Ground Sacramento holds week long camp-out to educate on homelessness

Safe Ground Sacramento activists rally at City Hall in 2009.

Safe Ground Sacramento will hold a weeklong festival starting Wednesday to raise funds and awareness for its goal to create a sustainable community for the area’s homeless population.

Live music, poetry readings and inspirational speeches from community leaders are a few of the festivities lined up for Safe Ground Stake Down at 12th and C Streets in the Alkali Flat neighborhood downtown from May 1 through 8. The activities will begin in the afternoon while people will camp out in tents at night. The event’s goal is to highlight the need for a “safe ground” for those impacted by homelessness.

“Safe Ground is sometimes mistaken for being about tent camping,” said executive director Steve Watters, “but we’re about building a community to help people step out of homelessness in an overall effort to reduce homelessness in Sacramento.”

In 2008, the Tent City encampment along the American River Parkway prompted the birth of the nonprofit. The mission: to find a safe place for the homeless with access to social services minus the illegal camping.

“The arrest policy is not working,” said Cathleen Williams, event planner and civil rights attorney. “It’s moving people from neighborhood to neighborhood and ousting people from where they have settled for a day or more. It’s also inflicting extreme hardship on homeless people.”

Many of the chronically homeless have been arrested for illegal camping, panhandling, loitering and urinating on public property. Last November, the city spent almost $800,000 in reimbursing the homeless on personal items taken by police when they were removed from their temporary spots.

In the past, Safe Ground has held a springtime jubilee at César Chávez Memorial Plaza. But this year, the organization wanted a large-scale event to rally public support and educate the community on its plans to provide housing and assistance to those ready to transition out of homelessness.

With aid from Habitat for Humanity, Safe Ground plans to build energy-efficient cabins for 80 to 100 people with a solar-powered assistance center at two to three different sites within the county. But Safe Ground is still looking for the first site.

“The sooner we can find that piece of property, the sooner we can start the process,” Watters said. “Our real goal is to build this community as a low-cost sustainable model to really attack this problem without spending so much more on other solutions.”

It could take 12 to 18 months for the community to bloom into fruition after finding a site.

There was opposition from Alkali Flat about the Stake Down event, Williams said, but local homeless advocates and neighborhood residents met at city hall to discuss the issues. But opposition is nothing new.

“I want there to be more understanding for the homeless,” said Mea Andrade. “We don’t want to hurt them or their families or their homes, but we care about them, and we just want to have a life beside them.”

Andrade, 63, and her husband, Youvon Smith, 60, pitch tents on different streets for shelter at night.

“It’s reasonably comfortable, but I would love to be in my own home, where I will have a shower and other facilities with all the comforts of quote unquote home,” Smith said.

Smith, whose last job was as a food inspector, said he wants the event to break down assumptions of the homeless.

“Some people are looking for a handout, but a lot of people out here are looking for a hand up,” he said.

Last year, Sacramento Steps Forward, another nonprofit focused on reducing homelessness, counted over 2,800 homeless people in Sacramento County.

The idea of creating “safe ground” has long been an issue of debate in Sacramento. Do you think it would help address homelessness, or do you see it as a potential negative for the city and the neighborhood where it would be located? Sound off below.

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