City Beat

News, insight and discussion on Sacramento and its neighborhoods

February 23, 2011
Are Seattle's tent cities a model for Sacramento?

I'm in Seattle this week reporting a story about the city's homeless tent cities. What I've found so far is a community that believes it has a model that works - and a model they think would also work for Sacramento.

Perhaps the most high profile of the encampments is Tent City 3, which for the past three months has been located in a church parking lot set in the middle of Seattle's Maple Leaf neighborhood, an enclave of tree-lined streets and expensive bungalows. It reminds me of South Land Park.

Unlike Sacramento, Seattle's tent cities are sanctioned and organized. They elect officers from the camp who are in charge of everything from cleaning blankets to organizing food donations. The encampments are managed by a non-profit.

There are also strict rules. Anyone found with drugs or alcohol is kicked out. Profanity is not tolerated. Everyone must work security shifts and help keep the camp clean.

I interviewed many of the 68 people living in Tent City 3 and there were several compelling stories. Here's one:

Albert Walker, 50, has been living in Tent City 3 for about three weeks. He's a drywaller and earlier this month, he went to Sacramento on the promise of work. The work didn't materialize and he came back to Seattle.

While in Sacramento he went to the American River Parkway, but said encampments there were disorganized and many people "were carrying baseball bats in their bags." He felt threatened.

"I probably could have done it, but why?" he told me. "It was drugs and fights."

In Seattle, the tent cities provide stability for Walker. He told me he's able to come and go as he pleases and look for work. Shelters in Seattle kick him out for long periods of time during the day, forcing him to carry his belongings.

Walker makes no apologies. He's homeless because he went to jail and when he got out, he had lost his home. But he says he recently finished a home inspection program at a local career college.

"For now, this is all I've got," he said. "I've got to make it work."

Officials in Sacramento are close to having a proposed plan for a sanctioned tent city and the final piece to work out is location. It appears the Sacramento program would be self-managed and have the same restrictions on drug and alcohol use.

This has become a complicated issue in Sacramento and it's still complicated here in Seattle. While the Maple Leaf neighborhood seems to accept the tent city, some neighbors whose homes border the camp have set up security cameras pointed at the encampment. Here, the tent cities are rotated among church parking lots every three months,

If a plan like the one they're using in Seattle should materializes in Sacramento, would you support it?

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About City Beat

Ryan Lillis has covered the city of Sacramento, its 108 neighborhoods and its politicians since 2008. Prior to that, he covered crime at The Bee. A native of upstate New York, Lillis has a journalism degree from the University of California, Berkeley.

Contact reporter Ryan Lillis at rlillis@sacbee.com

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