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Sacramento to Open 3-Month Encampment for Homeless Seniors

The sanctioned tent encampment for roughly 60 homeless seniors will have bathrooms, showers, security, food, water and potentially dental services. The goal is to find permanent housing for the residents before 90 days.

(TNS) — The city of Sacramento, Calif., and the Sierra Health Foundation plan to open a Safe Ground sanctioned tent encampment for the roughly 60 homeless seniors who for decades have been camping along the river near Discovery Park.

The Safe Ground would be behind the foundation's headquarters, near Garden Highway and Gateway Oaks Drive, on a grassy riverfront lot.

The seniors, many of whom have serious health issues, have been living in a tight-knit encampment called "the island" along the riverfront, some for as long as 30 years. Many of the residents receive Social Security and some have jobs, but they have been unable to find the housing they desperately want.

"When I say there are elders on the river who have been there for decades who have income and no place to go, that evokes the same reaction in almost everyone I talk to — it's not OK," said City Councilwoman Katie Valenzuela, who represents the area. "I think this is the most glaring example of how our system is failing people on the streets and also the most prominent opportunity we have to start mending those holes in the safety net and make sure people have a path forward when they're ready."

The fenced Safe Ground would be open for about three months. Guests would sleep in tents with bathrooms, showers, 24/7 security, food and water, and hopefully eventually medical and dental services, Valenzuela said. The goal would be for everyone to find permanent housing by the time the Safe Ground closes, Valenzuela said.

Valenzuela is hopeful the site could open in the next couple of weeks, after a memorandum of understanding is signed with Sierra Health Foundation. It would cost the city less than $1 million and does not require a council vote, she said.

Twana James, the unofficial mayor of the island camp, said if the Safe Ground can actually be a mechanism to get the seniors into permanent housing, it would be very helpful. But she is skeptical.

"It's not permanent and it's not for sure so we don't know yet," James said.

Officials have made a lot of promises to the island over the years that have not come to fruition, said Valenzuela, who talked to residents there Wednesday.

"The most important thing is making sure it's something they're comfortable with," Valenzuela said.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg has been working with Valenzuela to open the Safe Ground.

"This is a great example of the city, county and a private philanthropy joining forces to help 50 or so people who have been living for many years on the river find a way out of homelessness," Steinberg said in a statement. "It's what we are endeavoring to do throughout the city and county."

On Monday, Valenzuela and Steinberg met with neighbors in the area to tell them about the idea, though they did not name the specific location.

Most residents are supportive of the idea, though they still have concerns that the city will provide 24/7 security and social services it's promising, said Z Wayne Johnson, president of the River Oaks neighborhood association.

"There's some concerns but generally I can support it because you're taking care of these vulnerable seniors and you're not adding additional outside homeless (people) into that facility," Johnson said.

There would be room at the Safe Ground for everyone at the island encampment, but not room for additional homeless people, Valenzuela said. The site would be an addition to the city's $100 million siting plan, which includes more than 20 approved sites for homeless shelters, Safe Grounds and tiny homes across the city.

Anyone at the island who does not want to move to the Safe Ground would be able to stay where they are, Valenzuela said.

The lot where the Safe Ground would be located, which the Sierra Health Foundation has used in the past for events, is not visible from the street. It has flooded in past winters, so officials are working to create a contingency plan in case that happens while the Safe Ground is open, said Liv O'Keeffe, foundation spokeswoman. The foundation is glad to be able to alleviate the homelessness problem, she said.

"We have a crisis going on that really requires all of us to do our part so we've been really happy to offer up our grounds for consideration," O'Keeffe said.

The city's Department of Community Response is determining which provider will staff the Safe Ground, said Bridgette Dean, director of the department.

"Once we confirm that agreement, we will notify the public," Dean said in a statement. "We will also be coordinating services with the county related to mental health, substance use disorders and housing resources."

The city operates a Safe Ground under the W-X freeway and at Miller Park, but the Sierra Health Foundation site would be the first on private property. Officials hope it will not be the last.

"We're hoping this will inspire other private organizations and businesses to see themselves as potential partners in this solution," O'Keeffe said.

(c)2021 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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