by Cathleen Williams. Sacramento’s Community Summit on Homelessness convened on August 27th and 28th of this year. On a magnificent summer weekend, at Westminster Presbyterian Church, a hundred-year-old brick church across from the great trees of Capitol Park, a range of organizations, through their movers and shakers, gathered to start strategic planning around the moral, political, and practical crisis of homelessness.
The Setting of the Summit
Outside the walls of this peaceful site, the relentless and brutal assault by police, code enforcers, park rangers, CalTrans workers, and Sheriff’s deputies against unhoused people continued to rage throughout our city and county as our elected representatives pushed forward with their own drastic “non-solution,” towing vehicles, wrecking tents and encampments, displacing unhoused neighbors who live on sidewalks and grassy medians, in parks and open lands – all this suffering and hardship inflicted upon people in dire poverty, all this inflicted without a plan, an actual plan, to house or even shelter a community numbering between 10,000 and 20,000 people (the lower figure estimated by the official homeless “point in time” count of January 2022)
Meanwhile, new and hostile legal offensives are being cooked up at every level – by the State, funding CalTrans’ with hundreds of millions to clear land around highways from inhabitants; by the City, with new bans on sidewalk stays; and by the County, outlawing unhoused people from so called “infra-structure” areas that just happen to cover every corner and crevice of the 900 square mile expanse of Sacramento County.
And with these laws, an ugly narrative is being broadcast, accusing unhoused people of being violent, criminal, and distasteful – pariahs who should not be seen by children on their way to school or by the “good citizens” who should be able to shop, play and work without being confronted by the social devastation that is our country at the present moment.
Perhaps the most blatant new legal assault is Measure O, which the City has placed on the November ballot. Opposed by two insightful city council members, Katie Valenzuela and Mai Vang, this Measure will mandate the city police to remove homeless people from their living areas in a vast campaign of sweeps and clearances, while authorizing only 600 “spaces” where they can legally live – most likely in city run encampments rather than places where they will be inside, with a door that closes and windows that open.
All this police action – Measure O provides that failure to homeless people to comply will be punishable as a misdemeanor, leading to jail and fines – is clearly an attempt to avoid the impact of the federal decision in “Martin v. Boise,” which held that criminalization of homeless people for living outside was unconstitutional “cruel and unusual” punishment unless each and every person had access to indoor shelter. Already taken to court for putting this on the ballot, the city will face strong legal challenges to this wasteful, expensive, futile, cruel ordinance.
The Summit thus opened against the background of a dire situation, one that could not be “solved” over a period of 2 days even with the best intentions, and even with the involvement and guidance of unhoused attendees, many active in the Homeless Union and other local organizations, and committed to developing awareness and political power. According to attendee Janeen Kemp, who just emerged from a stint of homelessness, never to return, “I don’t want to just keep talking. I don’t believe that anything is coming from our current government. They are taking public funds without the public knowing how it is being spent. People are making money from our problems. We are one of the richest states in the nation and the richest cities in the state. We need to have more power and influence in making our demands.”
The Keynote Address
Niki Jones, keynote speaker, opened the Summit with a powerful land acknowledgement. “We hold this summit on stolen indigenous land, Valley Miwok and Nisenan land. Settler colonialism, the theft of land, is still the structure of our society.
“In our conversations here, we must address the reality of the white supremacist rule. Not far from this spot stands Sutter’s Fort – the first recorded encampment after the initial removal of local indigenous people. Sutter cleared those people out. It’s a racist, ablist practice, harkens back to Jim Crow. The move to “clean up” or remove people, — what unhoused people are experiencing today — is an old system and an old strategy.”
As Niki enjoined us, “we have a world to fight for. Care and feel the pain in caring. Share what we need…family, neighborhood, organization. Learn to lean into survival strategies, up lift where people are. This is war and these are the front lines. We practice solidarity, not just charity.”
The Roundtable Workshops
On Saturday, community summit roundtable workshops were organized around themes of empowerment in the struggle against homelessness.
Acceptable Emergency Housing Strategies,” coordinated by Crystal Sanchez of the Homeless Union and, addressed how to reshape the endless cycling of unhoused people through the shelter system, including mass shelters, city provided encampments, and motel rooms, a system in which short term stays, lack of privacy and dignity, and arbitrary mismanagement is the norm. Enormously expensive and yet desperately inadequate – the central question discussed was how to make the city and county accountable for the horrendous abuses, and how to shift resources to housing instead of short-term shelter.
Two roundtable workshops, dealt with Law and Policy, the first one focusing on criminalization, sweeps and advocacy, coordinated by Bob Erlenbusch of SRCEH and Laurance Lee of Legal Services, and the second, on legal rights, litigation, and legislation, coordinated by Mark Merin. Participants tackled the question of how to organize and block the new ordinances that outlaw encampments, and how to file lawsuits in federal court challenging the sweeps, displacements, and loss of property as unconstitutional under Martin v. Boise.
Dr. MK, from UC Davis Family Medicine and Sacramento Street Medicine, and Flojuane Cofer of Public Health Advocates, led the roundtable workshop “What the Health,” focusing on how to improve and expand medical care by taking services out to encampments and making them accessible and friendly to the people most in need. Innovation and outreach was the emphasis of the day.
The roundtable workshop on “Housing and Homelessness Prevention” brought in the Sacramento Tenants Union and Peter Bell of Sacramento Steps Forward to lead the discussion about the impact of a private, profit-driven housing market, looking at ways to preserve, fund, and build public housing to deal with the crisis.
The Take Aways
Throughout the Community Summit, we put the emphasis on solutions – as unhoused people, visionaries, activists – each and every roundtable workshop addressed the question of how can we come together to reimagine and bring about the changes we need to see.
As we work on follow through, these are the major themes that emerged in group discussions:
- Organize, organize, organize. Bring organizations together, outreach to new communities, involve unhoused people with trainings and strategic planning; prioritize work with the Homeless Union and other unhoused leaders to establish a commission of homeless people and their allies to oversee public policies.
- Get the facts and information we need to drive our policy demands and audit public expenditure – how are funds being spent, who is responsible, and what are their goals as compared to ours? How can we hold accountable the powers that be?
- Defeat Measure O – raise consciousness, raise funds, get out the vote, and fight the narrative that stigmatizes and stereotypes homeless people as criminals, deviants, and pariahs.
- Remake the system of short-term stays at temporary shelters and city-run encampments — but overall prioritize a campaign to build, build, build public housing while supporting informal, self-initiated and self-governed living spaces with health services, survival necessities, garbage pick-up and sanitation.
- Stop criminalization of people living outside – through litigation if necessary – and publicize the trauma and devastation caused by using sweeps and zoning enforcement to break up informal encampments, confiscate belongings, and displace homeless people.
We are working toward a full report on the recommendations that were developed at the Community Summit and we are making contact with the dozens of people who attended – almost a hundred over the two days, including 28 people who came from their encampments and tents and brought their perspectives, their experience, and their wisdom.
A Special Thank You to Westminster Presbyterian Church and to Community Summit Sponsors: Sacramento Loaves & Fishes; Safe Ground Sacramento; Western Regional Advocacy Project; Organize Sacramento; Uptown Studios; Paul Boden; Muriel Strand
And thank you to the contributions of the many participating groups, including but not limited to: 28 individuals that are living unhoused in Sacramento; Black Zebra Project; David Barnitz (Westminster Presbyterian Church Deacon); Decarcerate Sacramento; Interfaith Council of Greater Sacramento; Justice 2 Jobs Sacramento; League of Women’s Voters, Homeless Committee; Legal Services of Northern CA; Mark Merin (Law Office of Mark E Merin); Mental Health First; National Lawyers Guild; No on Measure O; People’s Budget Sacramento; Peter Bell (Sacramento Steps Forward); Public Health Advocates; Punks for Lunch; Rebekah Turnbaugh (St. John’s Lutheran Church); Sacramento Area Congregations Together; Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee; Sacramento Homeless Union; Sacramento Poor People’s Campaign: A National Campaign for Moral Revival; Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness; Sacramento Street Medicine; Sacramento Services Not Sweeps Coalition; Sacramento Tenants Union; Tim Brown (SHOC founder & SRCEH); UC Davis Willow Clinic; Women’s Empowerment