Sacramento to make its tent-city permanent?

The tent-city in Sacramento, the capital of California, is so big and entrenched that the city is debating installing plumbing and other amenities. Meanwhile Sacramento's vacancy rate is higher than the national average: "10.4 percent of rental housing units are vacant and 4.8 percent of owned units are vacant."
The primitive settlement sits in the shadow of the state capitol and is home to about 300 people who have no toilets or running water, creating unsanitary conditions that advocacy groups worry could promote diseases like cholera. With the downturn in the economy and more working-class people losing their jobs and their homes, the tent city is expanding.

The mayor of Sacramento, Kevin Johnson, said in an interview that he wants to create a permanent tent city for the homeless, although he is not sure where it should be. He said he recognized that doing so would be difficult politically. But he said a permanent site could bring sanitation services and regulations like a ban on drugs and alcohol.

Sacramento and Its Riverside Tent City (via Warren Ellis)

(Image: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)


  1. But he said a permanent site could bring sanitation services and regulations like a ban on drugs and alcohol.

    Toilets are cool, but anybody living in a tent city should not be denied the opportunity to drown their sorrows.

  2. So, will these be called Bushvilles or Obamavilles? The whole tent-city thing smacks of Bush, but the plumbing and central air indicate an Obama level of class and empathy… It is a bit of a conundrum, I suppose.

  3. In any tent city, the words “sanitation services” should always be in quotation marks.

  4. I live in Sacramento, not too far from the tent city. Some things to be aware of:

    1. Sacramento has a chronic problem with the homeless, not a problem with the chronic homeless. The powers that be always have them on the move, so you don’t “see” them.

    2. For every tent in that city, there are probably 10 or more by the river and elsewhere, out of sight.

    3. That area has been in use by “campers” for more than a decade, but has only been sparsely populated until recently.

    4. There are 3 empty apartment buildings on the square block I live on. Rents, however, still remain very high in midtown for some reason. The median income before the economic woes was about $43k per family. Rent is about $1000 for a small 2 bedroom apt, but there is a 10% vacancy? Landlords here got greedy during the “boom” and the drugs haven’t worn off for them yet.

    5. That 10% number is probably low, and doesn’t account for ones empty due to “pending sale”, or those being “renovated”. That would include almost all of the new complexes and many of the smaller buildings that changed hands during the market upswing. Then the new owners went belly up when they couldn’t find renters willing to pay more than half their earnings in rent in order to cover the higher mortgages.

    6. Don’t count on the City Council or County Supervisors to do anything but sweep this under the rug. These are the same people that banned growing victory gardens in front yards at the behest of real estate agents, and hold regular “emergency” meetings in order to avoid public comment. Banning the gardening happened at one such meeting.

    7. If the council does something, it will be to put a pretty face on the camp, while making it as undesirable as possible for most people to stay there. And they will probably throw on a bunch more ordinances and such just to make anyone who can’t go to the camp truly and absolutely miserable. So, expect more people to camp by the river than before.

    8. Correction on the referenced article- the number of women *with* children turned away is over 200 a day (that would be much more than 200 people). I remember seeing that quote from the rep at the womens’ shelter that day. Something like 2% of all the children in this city are homeless (per the mayor) as well.

    I could go on, but I think most people get the picture here. The city council is run by a lot of career small time politicians, some of whom mean well but really just want things to stay as quiet as possible with as little interference from the public as possible. The county supes are much of the same mind. The mayor loves attention, and will milk this as much as is feasible. The neighborhood association leaders generally hate the homeless, and will eventually get what they want, which is the homeless to be invisible to them again. The church that does most of the charity work in the Bannon/North C St area has been hobbled with poor leadership by Rome due to them acting too independently in the past, but unfortunately that church has often been the only loud voice for the homeless in a somewhat Catholic leaning city. The homeless will not likely be served well by the additional attention, which is unfortunate but true. What is also unfortunate is that this situation is the same all over California- its just clearly visible in this tiny portion of just one city. Mayors all over this state have been holding their breathes collectively, hoping that Oprah and the WSJ don’t show up at their doors next.

  5. What? Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?

    Do they not pursue their rational self interest?

  6. What the council should do is this:

    Buy up empty housing, convert to affordable housing, where people easily could afford to pay the rent with their welfare payments,

    make this affordable housing available to everybody,

    but put homeless people first in line.

    Problem solved – so why don’t they?


    Thanks for the really informative comment. This is really awful, yet fascinating.

    Also, “Tent City”? Why not “slum” or at least the more politically correct “informal settlement”?

    Or do we not get slums in the US?

  8. Thanks to the housing bailout home and rental prices will continue to be out of the reach of those who need a home. The bailout funds will help the banks and landlords survive without lower sale or rent prices which would happen in a free economy.
    Tent cities are a civil right, outlawing life and sleeping outside of an approved house, hotel, or apartment is torturing people for the heinous sin of loosing their jobs or getting behind on house payments.

  9. Heard on KQED this morning that The Sacramento Bee is reporting that “homeless campers who live inside Sacramento’s tent city will be asked to move to shelters and other indoor structures”

  10. #11: I always thought “slum” implied at least actual buildings. Rather than being a euphemism, “tent city” sounds worse to my ear.

  11. If these people deserved housing, they could afford it. Or something like that. Buggy whips!

  12. This is just very sad. :( I hope those in the government will “bail” these people out too. The tent city might be the most appropriate monument to our current economic crisis.

  13. @13Strong,

    Yeah, when I think of ‘slum,’ I tend to think of a run-down neighborhood with poorly maintained buildings. It’s possible that this just reflects the afluence of the US, and that what are considered slums elsewhere in the world aren’t expected to have much in the way of buildings.

    “Tent city” also has the advantage of being more descriptive than “informal settlement.” I suppose “semi-permanent urban campground” would give you more syllables if you like.

  14. The perfect name for all the homeless tent cities that are sure to start springing up all over:


    This works for me. It so works for me.

  15. @ #8 NOEN: +2 internets for the Dickens reference!

    “If they would rather die, they had better do it and decrease the surplus population!”

  16. Step 1. Create regulations encouraging banks to pump over $2 trillion in bad loans into the housing market, creating an entirely predictable housing bubble. Destroy affordable housing, price many marginal people who could have afforded a home out of the market unless they resort to ARMs, IOMs, and Neg-Am mortgages.

    Step 2. When the loans to both non-credit-worthy and credit-worthy but over-stretched borrowers inevitably go bad, give banks the expectation that they’ll be bailed out with taxpayer money …by bailing them out with a couple trillion $. Eliminate any incentive they may have had to immediately cut their losses by liquidating their inventory of foreclosed homes at market prices.

    Step 3. Blame the resulting homelessness on “capitalism”.

  17. Oh , BTW Ernunnos your Step 1 is factually false: the Banks had a very very great say in what regs were passed, and they unerringly wanted the regs to allow them the most Profit…which for long it did…and the Banks are the ones with the largest hands stuck out to the taxpayer now….and what? you blame the Government?

  18. Have any of you people claiming Sacramento is going to start looking like Mumbai or a “favela” ever been to one? I lived in a Manila slum for a year and these slums have hundreds of thousands of people not “300”. Adding plumbing or any permanent facility is stupid, stupid, and stupid. Then it becomes permanent.

  19. “Before you know it Sacramento is going to start looking like Mumbai.”

    What is happening in America, and all first world countries, is that wealth is retreating into Green Zones. There are many empty areas in the US where the State does not go. Wealth is sort of “precipitating out” or… concentrating and separating itself from the rest of society.

    The result of that will be a sort of Feudal Global State that will live within it’s protected spaces surrounded by large areas of poverty.

  20. I assure you that I’m not Bush apologist, but to anyone suggesting that these are somehow related to W are off the mark. I’ve lived in the greater Sacramento area my life (35 years), and these “homeless” folks have been around for as long as I can remember.
    Every once in a while, someone sets up camp too close to one of the bike trails along the rivers here; hackles are raised, and everyone is pushed out, only to reappear somewhere else shortly after.

  21. This is how shanty-towns get started- the only reason we’re not seeing them yet in places like Michigan is that it gets cold in winter. But look at abandoned factories and warehouses in any town along the rust belt and you’ll find similar communities tucked away. Get used to it.

    Dem a loot, dem a shoot, dem a wail, a shanty town

  22. “I always thought “slum” implied at least actual buildings.”

    Depends what you consider a building. I think slum in the historical Western sense brings to mind brick and mortar houses that are squalid, unsanitary, in poor repair, and are located in an economically deprived area.

    But the modern global usage is used much more generally and commonly to describe the “shantytowns”, “favelas”, “informal settlements”, etc that you see in cities like Mumbai, Lagos, Beijing, Brazil, Cape Town, etc. And these “slums” come in all shapes and sizes.

    To be honest, though, are we going to split hairs between a tent and a corrugated metal and plastic lean-to? If anything, slums have a permanence that Sacramento’s “tent city” doesn’t. Yet.

  23. I’m sort of torn about what to do here. On one hand, we could roll out Hexayurts (very low cost free/open source housing system) and get people something way more comfortable than a tent for about the same cost per square meter.

    On the other hand, that’s a band aid – a tech fix which doesn’t address the underlying economic problems, or the property-rights driven social absurdity of putting people in OSAT (open source appropriate technology) shacks while there are empty apartments just across the street.

    This is always the problem – do you do what you can now (tech fixes) or campaign for political solutions (while people stay stuck in tents.)

  24. “This is always the problem – do you do what you can now (tech fixes) or campaign for political solutions (while people stay stuck in tents.)”

    Well, both. Obviously the two affect each other, but still.

  25. Are you sure it’s a tent-city?

    Might be a Zombie Flash Mob depicting Zombie Capitalism.

  26. I think these tent cities are part necessity and part protest. You could live cheaply with, say, 4 people to a 1-bedroom apartment, and it would be better than being in a tent with no water, but your situation wouldn’t be visible to the media.

    And the people asking why there are vacant apartments while these people live in tents, well, you can’t force a landlord to rent out their property. Rents will come down eventually if the landlords want to fill these apartments.

  27. “And the people asking why there are vacant apartments while these people live in tents, well, you can’t force a landlord to rent out their property.”

    I think people are aware of this. The question is more “How can we live in a system where houses lie empty and unused while hundreds of people go homeless?”

    We know the answer – capital – but it doesn’t mean it can’t seem completely ludicrous, perhaps in a “simplistic” way.

    A friend of mine made the point that, if a lot of the foreclosed houses are now owned by the banks, and the banks are now mostly owned by the government, why can’t the government force the banks to offer the foreclosed houses to the homeless?

  28. Another article from the SJ Mercury News has details of the Mayors announcement yesterday that the tent city will come down and the people relocated to better shelter… in large part due to the action of several local charities helping with the bill.

    Johnson said he realized while campaigning for mayor last year that Sacramento had been ignoring its homeless population for years.

    “So when Oprah and her crew came in and they shined a very bright spotlight on our particular situation, we looked at it as an opportunity now to act,” Johnson said.

    I’m glad that *something* is being done; but it is shameful that it is so late, so little, and it took national embarrassment to enact.

    That we live in a world where charging our fellow humans money for housing and kicking them out if they fall on hard times is considered a legitimate business model breaks my heart daily.

  29. So here is an idea….the billions of dollars that are being wasted on bank whores, could go to buy the property and start subsidized housing for the people that lost jobs, and houses, with an eventual option of buying back the property, it would be a long term investment, but unleast u would see some of the money back….

  30. @ those that don’t like to blame capitalism …

    I think I read from Salon that a growth system under global capitalism (balance price w/ supply and demand and labor) it’s near impossible to have no unemployment. in fact, having some level of unemployment would have more growth than no unemployment. I will not argue that society “could” engineer more humane ways of supporting and integrating the unemployed and other victims of our growth based economy, but in what would you place blame if not this failing system that we created / participated in/ naively believed / hypocritically supported ?

    I think it’s a sad state that we live in . Given how many are suffering now, just yesterday on the AM radio – some right wing host is labeling Obama as as a socialist and asking “is it a crime to make money” referring to wall street execs. what world do people live in? When would people realize that there’s cost to the growth we enjoyed the past decades?

    @ Bill Albertson
    thanks for the info.

  31. “a ban on drugs and alcohol”

    Yeah. That’ll work. The idea is otherwise fairly awsome. Not quite as awsome as subsidized rent would be, but at least a step in the right direction.

  32. I’ve lived in Sacramento for my entire life (almost 36 years), and this is not a new issue by any means. As the Sacramento Bee put it in 1988: “River people. They’ve always existed.” (Sacramento Bee, August 14, 1988, Page A1). And, for many of the “tent city” dwellers, they’ve chosen to live this way.
    Every so often, someone gets to close to one of the bike trails on the river or something, and the city decides to crack down, generally against the will of the people in the tents:
    “By Sunday, word had spread among the homeless men and women in Discovery Park that the Sacramento Police Department would raid the riverbanks again early today to eradicate their makeshift shelters — and the people were miffed. Those interviewed Sunday afternoon said they had no intention of spending the night at the National Guard Armory — the temporary housing that the city is offering as an alternative.” (Sacramento Bee, May 29, 1989, Page B1)
    Granted, some of them are there because they’re “homeless” in the usual sense. But, despite what Oprah has to say about it, many of them are there because that’s how they choose to live there lives.
    So, please stop going on about “Shrubyaville” or the econopocalype. Not all those who wander are lost.

  33. Jeesh, apologies for the horrific spelling. I was too busy being miffed at talk of this all being a “protest” or some new problem to be bothered to pay attention to what I typed.

  34. “A friend of mine made the point that, if a lot of the foreclosed houses are now owned by the banks, and the banks are now mostly owned by the government, why can’t the government force the banks to offer the foreclosed houses to the homeless?”

    Superficially a fine idea, but what do you mean “offer?” If you offer to sell to them, it won’t make any difference, because clearly homeless people can’t afford otherwise they’d be homeless. If you’re just straight-up giving them houses, then all of that money lost due to people being unable to pay their mortgages stays lost. Not to mention it would be ridiculously unjust, and people like me who work our asses off to save up for years and buy homes we can actually afford won’t put up with it.

    “That we live in a world where charging our fellow humans money for housing and kicking them out if they fall on hard times is considered a legitimate business model breaks my heart daily.”

    As opposed to what, exactly?

  35. Wuld it be worthwhile to offer foreclosed apartment buildings and houses to charitable organizations on long-term inexpensive lease, say 10 years for some nominal yearly fee, to operate as homeless shelters? The charities would be responsible for maintenance, etc., and at the end of 10 years the owners would have the option to take back the property or extend the lease. One of the big issues with shelters is that there are never enough spaces to go around for everyone who wants or needs them. Give the banks who own the properties the charitable donation tax break should they lease out the properties for this purpose.

  36. Nothing wrong with tent city. I lived in one of them years ago, as long you take care of your business, keep your area clean, it’s home for you for as long as you want it. Now If you have the chance to go to Hawaii, and you are homeless. The city allowes the homeless to camp on the beach instead to have them walking the streets and panhandling. How about that, you are right on the beach and from above everyone will be looking down and say, how in the hell they end up living down there.

  37. Having spent a lot of time in the favelas of Brazil, I suggest that Sacramento think long and hard about “improving” the tent city.

    Take the city of Campinas as an example. In the mid-1990s they made favela improvement efforts including paving roads, sewer systems, and electrical. Since people living in favelas in other cities (and every city and town in Brazil has favelas) had very little to lose they moved to the nicer favelas in Campinas.

    Of course there weren’t enough menial jobs in the area to support the explosion in low income population and a few years later Campinas became the kidnapping capital of Brazil. The middle class began evacuating the city for the suburbs as fast as they could for safety reasons, and the downtown area went from having a vibrant nightlife to being completely dead.

    Perhaps money spent on sewers and electricity for the Sacramento tent city would be better spent on helping these people get back on their feet. From the 60 Minutes piece on the tent city a few weeks ago it appears than many of the sane campers have family that would take them in if they asked, but they are too ashamed. Have family structures broken down so much in this country that nobody dares ask for help?

  38. God, sounds like Santa Cruz. (How this town has so many bums downtown in a city of 50,000 I don’t know. Well actually, I do. It’s a magnet city. Is it really that much to ask to be able to spend an evening out without being hit up for change eight times in 1000 feet, while being serenaded by arhythmic drumming on pots, and the aroma of marijuana?)

    While I sympathize with the potential the public health problems, I can’t believe that providing city services to a bunch of tents is a good idea. It’s just going to make a magnet for the “transients” to come from surrounding areas to that part of town.

    You’re never going to be able to completely solve the homeless problem, some people are simply unemployable. You just have to increase the number of jobs available for these people, and hope they take them and then move out. How you do that, I don’t know.

  39. if there are “unemployable”, I would ask the question: can you change the nature of “employment”?

  40. I too live in sacramento, and the cities “plan” of asking the homeless to move to exsisting shelters is ridiculous and shortsighted. Obviously they are choosing not to use the resources avavilable.

    They will just re-set up the tent city somewhere else along the river just like always.

  41. . . . creating unsanitary conditions that advocacy groups worry could promote diseases like cholera.

    One of the advantages being that the homeless problem will eventually disappear on its own if ignored for long enough. Not a very popular option tho’.

  42. “Not to mention it would be ridiculously unjust, and people like me who work our asses off to save up for years and buy homes we can actually afford won’t put up with it.”

    I just don’t understand this. Ridiculously unjust how? I’m not saying that these houses be permanently handed over to the homeless, but that with all these empty properties, and no occupants expected in the near future, it seems ridiculously unjust to ME that people are being left to live in tents with no sanitation or electricity.

    It almost sounds like you want them to be punished for their bad choices or financial short-sightedness. Why does it outrage you that homeless people be given shelter? You still have a job and your own house (presumably).

  43. 1. Those who say these have been around a long time – “35 years” – geez, just about when St. Reagan of the Right had been in power for a couple of years – since St. Reagan’s unprecedented state spending on the military, homelessness has been a problem: not so much prior to that time: there is nothing “god-given” about this shameful situation.
    2. These people all need incomes, or income support.
    Redistribute from those who have glommed the past forty (40!) years worth of productivity improvements entirely for their own gain – the workers’ wages have not participated in those gains – by taxing the fruits of automation.
    EG. It only takes three guys to do what once took a thousand (in farming, mining, or manufacturing), yet the the same amount of profit still flows: but with no sharing it out to that thousand, who used to be able to raise a family (with a homemaker wife!) with their share of the income earned by the enterprise.
    What once generated eg. 100,000 shared amongst a thousand now generates the same amount, but only shared amongst three.
    So, tax and re-distribute: force the equitable sharing of gains in productivity brought about by automation: either by the lowering of prices enough to reflect the gains made by automation, or by redistributing those profits which are now only going to three, where once they went to a thousand.
    Maybe redistribute by instituting single-payer national health care?
    Or by taking oh 10% (100 Billion $$) from one years’ worth of military spending and increasing welfare?
    By Government hiring on a scale like FDR? Government hiring tens of thousands of artists, etc?
    Others think on these lines too: link:

  44. From the article I linked to :

    [Roosevelt’s] government hired about 60 per cent of the unemployed in public works and conservation projects that planted a billion trees, saved the whooping crane, modernized rural America, and built such diverse projects as the Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh, the Montana state capitol, much of the Chicago lakefront, New York’s Lincoln Tunnel and Triborough Bridge complex, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the aircraft carriers Enterprise and Yorktown. It also built or renovated 2,500 hospitals, 45,000 schools, 13,000 parks and playgrounds, 7,800 bridges, 700,000 miles of roads, and a thousand airfields. And it employed 50,000 teachers, rebuilt the country’s entire rural school system, and hired 3,000 writers, musicians, sculptors and painters, including Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.

    Oh wait: the banks are more important, and the banks must always be “healthy” for the Public to be financially healthy….and America has always had large numbers of the homeless…right? Right?
    And Americans have been told by their media corps. (so it must be true) that the material salvation of the poor and indigent is best accomplished by the charity of the wealthy, and not by the economic policy set by a democratically-elected Government, right?

    Screw that.
    The Government ought to hire 60% of the unemployed, instead of pissing away trillions to wealthy Bankers.

  45. What ? No responses?
    here’s some more about why the Gov. “cannot afford” to help homeless citizens:

    Has he average American just gotten stupid? Why give a corrupt Insurance co. trillions, and talk of cutting welfare and social security benefits at the same time?
    Maybe time for your great leaders to start another pointless destructive cruel and vicious war? Rather than ending the ones you have started already?

  46. Ugly Canuck — Reagan was 25 years ago, not 35. It’s a nitpick, but still. 1974 (35 years ago) was Nixon/Ford.

  47. @Ugly Canuck, please do not presume we Americans are as ignorant as the media portrays us.

    Tell me, if this had been going on in Canada, what would you be doing right now?

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