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When Sacramento changed its plan to demolish a homeless encampment on a vacant lot on Colfax Street, instead offering the homeless occupants a lease, activists and camp residents celebrated it as a win.

The first-of-its-kind deal, which allows the camp to remain in place and govern itself without city interference, was held up as a model Sacramento could replicate at future sites. Other cities, including San Jose, have said they’re considering similar models, putting the success or failure of this encampment under the microscope.

A year later, Sacramento has not managed to reproduce the concept and has no plans to. Residents of the camp, who lack electricity or running water, complain they feel forgotten. And the county district attorney, claiming the site threatens public safety, has demanded the city clear the camp or risk prosecution.

Those troubles highlight the logistical and ethical dilemmas that come with setting aside outdoor spaces for homeless residents to go when there aren’t enough beds indoors. And it comes at a time when officials across the state increasingly are turning to this last-ditch solution as they face mounting pressure to clear encampments away from sidewalks, parks, schools and other high-traffic public areas.

“The fact that people have a place where they can legally exist and not be threatened with arrest, not be run off and have to lose their belongings, where they can go to the bathroom with dignity, where there’s trash pickup so they don’t have to live in a place where there’s trash all over, where service providers can find them regularly and they aren’t going to lose contact with people as they work their way to housing — those are all good things,” said Eric Tars, senior policy director of the National Homelessness Law Center. “But it would be even better if they were doing them indoors.”

They got a lease, and they make their own rules

Camp Resolution, as the Sacramento camp is known, was started in 2022 by Sharon and Joyce Jones — a married couple in their 50s who found themselves homeless for the first time late in life. More than four dozen people now live there, some in new-looking Bullet trailers provided by the city, and others in cars, tents and more dilapidated trailers and RVs.

Joyce and Sharon Jones poke holes in a water bottle to water their garden next to their trailer at Camp Resolution on Feb. 28, 2024. The camp has no running water, so residents must rely on bottled water for all their needs. Photo by Fred Greaves for CalMatters.

Some residents have taken pains to make it more homey: Two potted plants hang from the hitch of one trailer, chickens roam the lot, and Sharon and Joyce are putting in a garden, using pallets to make raised planter beds.

“We try to make it as comfortable as possible,” Joyce said, “but sometimes it’s impossible.”

Shortly after Joyce and her community occupied the city-owned, formerly vacant lot in 2022, city workers determined the camp was unsafe and needed to be demolished — as often happens in Sacramento and throughout California. But that’s where the story takes an unusual turn. Residents of the camp, and their supporters, showed up in force to a city council meeting and persuaded council members to delay the sweep. About six months later, the city signed a lease allowing the camp to remain in place.

The lease, which advocacy group Safe Ground Sacramento signed on behalf of the Camp Resolution residents, was an experiment. Generally, similar programs are run by nonprofits contracted by a city. They often impose curfews, no-guest policies, sobriety requirements and other rules on residents. In exchange, they offer social services such as counseling or help finding permanent housing, and amenities such as showers and bathrooms.

“They don’t think people experiencing homelessness are capable of governing themselves,” Tars said.

Camp Resolution is different. Safe Ground Sacramento, which leases the property from the city for free, takes a hands-off approach that lets residents run the camp and write their own rules. The city gave the residents a handful of residential trailers, set up portable toilets and a hand-washing station, and provided dumpsters and ongoing trash pickup. But that’s it.

Many activist groups laud that model as a best practice, saying it’s important to let the residents run, or at least help run, their own camp.

“When individuals in these encampments have a sense of ownership, then it can really lead to the camp being a place that they take pride in and that they are trying to keep in as good condition as possible,” Tars said. “It gives a sense of responsibility to others in that community.”

It also means minimal overhead for the city: The trailers provided to Camp Resolution residents came from the Federal Emergency Management Agency at no cost to the city of Sacramento, and adding the camp to the city’s existing contract for trash pickup didn’t add any additional expense.

But in the case of Camp Resolution, it also means residents are left to fend for themselves. The city doesn’t provide electricity or running water. Community members donate food, some residents have generators, and a nonprofit used to bring a trailer with showers every other Sunday — but they recently stopped.

“It’s not going very well,” Joyce said. “I think that (the city) should do a little bit more.”

Jeanne Gillis uses tubs to wash dishes next to her trailer at Camp Resolution on Feb 28, 2024. Photo by Fred Greaves for CalMatters.

The Camp Resolution lease says the city would provide up to 33 trailers. Residents ended up receiving just 16. But 51 people live at the camp, meaning some people sleep in tents, in their cars or in dilapidated trailers and RVs that leak in the rain and have sprouted mold.

The city wouldn’t comment on the trailers — or anything else — citing a pending threat of prosecution from the county District Attorney’s Office. City officials recently sent 40 trailers to a new safe sleeping site they opened on Roseville Road, which also has plumbed toilets and showers.

Several of the Camp Resolution residents are elderly, and some have serious medical issues that make living without reliable power and water difficult. One woman, who recently turned 60, is on dialysis and gets around on an electric mobility scooter that she leaves parked outside her trailer.

Most of the residents are women, some of whom wouldn’t feel safe on the streets by themselves. Jeanne Gillis, 53, was cooking ground turkey over an open flame outside her trailer on a recent Wednesday. Gillis, who used to work as a medical patients’ advocate, lost her housing two years ago when she got sick with lupus and could no longer work. She’d never been homeless before and didn’t know what to do — so Sharon and Joyce took her under their wing. Now she’s part of their tight-knit community.

Jeanne Gillis cooks ground turkey over a wood fire next to her trailer at Camp Resolution on Feb. 28, 2024. Residents must rely on bottled water, generators, and wood fires because no utilities are provided at the camp. Photo by Fred Greaves for CalMatters.

“Thank God for everybody. Because it’s hard,” she said, tearing up. “I don’t think I’d be here if it wasn’t for everybody.”

Camp Resolution faces legal threat

Camp Resolution also faces an outside threat — Sacramento County District Attorney Thien Ho has demanded that the city close the camp. His office sent a letter to the city and Safe Ground Sacramento in November labeling the site a public health hazard. The site is contaminated by toxic chemicals left over from when it was used as a vehicle maintenance yard and held underground storage tanks for diesel and gasoline, he said. It’s not safe to camp on the contaminated soil, according to his letter. But only half of the site is paved, while the other half is bare dirt — and people live on both sides.

Ho’s office did not set a specific deadline for the city to clear the encampment, leaving it unclear exactly what, if anything, will come of his threat.

When asked about Ho’s next steps, Sonia Martinez Satchell, a spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office, indicated prosecution is still on the table.

“To date, the City has failed to move the unhoused off this toxic waste site,” she said in an emailed statement. “We will not waiver from our commitment to protect public safety for all.  As outlined in our letter, all available actions and recourse remain available.”

But camp residents and the advocates working with them say they’ve heard nothing but silence from the District Attorney’s Office since the November letter. That means the fate of those living at Camp Resolution is still up in the air.

Tim Swanson, spokesman for the City Manager’s Office, said the city can’t comment on any aspect of Camp Resolution because of the pending threat of prosecution.

Sharon and Joyce aren’t concerned — they claim the camp isn’t on the portion of the site that’s contaminated. Ho’s letter is just an excuse to try to kick them off the property, they said.

Sanctioned homeless encampments in California

Faced with a massive shortage of affordable homes, desperate city officials across California are considering opening places where unhoused people can legally set up tents. The move could give them more power to clear encampments from around parks, schools, downtown zones and other high-profile areas. That’s because unless cities have somewhere for displaced unhoused residents to go, the 2018 appellate case Martin v. Boise limits the extent to which they can clear encampments. That could change soon, as the Supreme Court has agreed to take up the case and will hear arguments next month. But for now, cities’ hands remain largely tied if they lack enough shelter beds.

San Diego recently passed an ordinance banning encampments in much of the city. As the city ramped up enforcement, it opened two sanctioned camp sites that together can hold more than 500 tents.

After the city rejected the idea three years ago, San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan recently said he’s considering opening similar sites.

Safe sleeping sites take many different forms — and have a range of price tags. In August, after the city stalled in its attempts to open safe sleeping sites, Sacramento City Manager Howard Chan single-handedly tried to identify locations for the projects. He initially said Camp Resolution could be a model for future sites — because it cost the city so little to run, it would allow the city to open more sites than if they used more expensive models.

Instead, the city in January launched its next safe sleeping site, on Roseville Road, with more services, more oversight and a greater cost — $3.2 million per year. The site has 60 rudimentary tiny homes and 40 trailers, and is governed by a nonprofit contracted through the city.

But, due to an anticipated budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year, the city has no plans to launch additional safe sleeping sites, Swanson said. At a committee meeting last month, city staff predicted that by next year, the city’s budget for homeless services would be short $11 million. By the 2025-26 fiscal year, they expected to be short nearly $39 million.

Life at Camp Resolution

There are about 800 people on the waitlist to get into Camp Resolution, according to Sharon and Joyce. Only six people from the camp have moved out and into permanent housing, they said. Just on the other side of the gate that separates Camp Resolution from the rest of the world, a group of people live in a cluster of cars parked haphazardly on the side of the road. Across the street, someone has erected a makeshift shack. RVs that serve as stand-in homes line the road.

Inside the gate, Sharon and Joyce tend to have the ultimate say in what goes, though there’s also a council that meets on Thursday evenings to discuss camp issues. Things don’t always go smoothly.

Camp Resolution, a “self-governed” homeless camp on city-owned land in Sacramento, on Feb. 28, 2024. Photo by Fred Greaves for CalMatters.

Last year a neighbor’s dogs attacked Sharon and sent her to the hospital with multiple bite injuries. That led to new rules at the camp about pets. But Sharon and Joyce say it’s hard to actually enforce the rules they impose.

“We need more structure,” Sharon said.

As they showed off the different parts of their community, Sharon and Joyce expressed disapproval of a trash pile in the middle of the camp.

“That can go in the trash can,” Joyce said. It didn’t take long. A few minutes later, residents could be seen picking up the garbage and carrying it to a nearby dumpster.

CalMatters Capitol reporter Jeanne Kuang contributed to this story.