By Ken Magri | Special to The OBSERVER
This winter’s unusually cold, windy and rainy weather has created big challenges for Sacramento’s unhoused population. Rising water levels at the Sacramento and American rivers have flooded many traditional locations used by unhoused campers. Constant rain has saturated the ground everywhere, making it difficult to keep possessions dry.
In an effort to alleviate the difficulty for at least some, Sacramento’s city and county governments – and the local nonprofit First Step Communities – teamed up to provide 15 travel-trailers, with added services, for people who are homeless to use at Miller Park.
It is part of the “Safe Ground” campaign created by the city to help reduce Sacramento’s steadily growing homeless population. The 2022 estimate of the number of Sacramento County’s homeless people, done by the Point in Time Count, reported an increase to 9,278 persons, up from 5,570 in 2019. A dramatic increase also was observed in homeless people who are vehicle-camping.
The Miller Park site lasts only until May. The intention is to move the trailers to a new, possibly larger location, said Joe Pacheco, coordinator of the Safe Ground project for First Step Communities. (First Step Communities maintains an Amazon wishlist of donations needed for its homeless clients, including toiletries, plastic cutlery, bottled water and snacks.)
First Steps Communities operates a traditional 80-bed shelter near Loaves & Fishes and a youth shelter on Del Paso Boulevard called The Grove. Additionally, it operates a tent facility in Auburn that can accommodate up to 50 homeless individuals.
First Step Communities was called in by the City of Sacramento a few years ago to operate a tent site under the W-X section of Interstate 80, during a construction phase. Later, the city contracted the organization to operate Safe Ground sites at Miller Park.
Last year the city government set up 60 high-quality tents at Miller Park, spanning Marina View Drive and paralleling the Sacramento River. The tent village was fenced off for safety and included garbage pick-up, bathroom and shower services, and a dining area. Parking spaces also were provided at Miller Park so that vehicle dwellers could access the same services.
Staff was on-site 24 hours a day, and tenants worked with a case management team to help end the homelessness cycle, which is a major priority of the Safe Ground project. The average length-of-stay for a tenant was 68 days.
But last September’s surprising heat wave made the tents too hot and caused some tenants to be relocated. Likewise, there were more issues this winter with the severity of storms. “The previous tents were mostly destroyed during the New Year’s weather event and people had to be evacuated,” said Zach Freels, chief of staff to City Councilmember Katie Valenzuela, whose District 4 includes Miller Park.
“Yeah, the tents were a good deal. I liked it there because it was safe,” said Scott (last name withheld), an unhoused man who now lives in a makeshift tent at the end of Broadway, just outside the park. A few of his homeless neighbors said they were among those tenants originally housed in the Safe Ground tents.
But people living less than 100 yards away could not be placed within the Safe Ground trailer site, which still has vacancies. “They would need to call 211; we don’t do walk-ups,” Pacheco said. “We get referrals from the Sacramento City Department of Community Response. They are responsible for identifying clients and bringing them in.”
Could the tents make a comeback once the weather improves? “As of right now, tents are not slated to return to the park due to their lack of resiliency to extreme weather events,” Freels said. “Trailers are the safest temporary option that the city had available to reopen the park.”
The travel-trailers were provided to the city by Gov. Gavin Newsom. Purchased in 2020, they were originally located at Cal Expo and used as temporary shelters during the pandemic. Now situated near the front of Miller Park, they are intended to act as a temporary village of sorts, until the city and county governments work together to identify longer-term sources of emergency shelter. The city plans to add hundreds of beds to its current inventory of more than 1,100.
Each of the Wildwood, Bullet and Premiere brand travel-trailers at Miller Park sleeps three people. But they are not hooked up for water or gas. “We provide showers and restrooms, they are serviced three times a week,” Pacheco said. ”We have clean, drinkable water and we provide two meals a day.”
The Safe Ground space also includes 24-hour security, daily garbage service, covered tables and chairs for outdoor eating, and staff services. Tenants may come and go as they wish, but must visit guests outside of the fenced-off area. Site manager Demetrius Turner works to supervise the grounds, coordinate activities and act as a liaison, solving issues that come up between tenants and service providers.
After being homeless for five years, Leonard (who did not want to give a last name) is a current tenant at Safe Ground. “I am glad to have this because without it I would be cold and wet at night,” he said. “Out on the street it’s always harder. Here I don’t have to worry about being hungry or staying warm.”
In December when the trailer site was approved, Councilmember Valenzuela voiced her support. “The Safe Ground at Miller Park has been an incredible resource, allowing us to address the urgency of the homelessness crisis in our community,” she said in a press release after the vote. “This new setup will provide guests with a much better experience with climate control and other amenities that were not previously available.”
Sacramento city and county governments agreed in December to create 10 new “encampment engagement teams” staffed by teams of 50 people. These teams would “provide intensive outreach, assessment, navigation, service delivery and housing to as many people as possible,” according to a press release from Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s office.
This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and Solutions Journalism Network. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.