From Wasteland to No Land by Paula Lomazzi
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The “Wasteland” is a large chunk of undeveloped land south and along the American River, east of Highway 160 and close to downtown Sacramento. This is where Oprah Winfrey’s Lisa Ling found and made known to the world over 200 homeless people living in tents. Many had lived there since evicted by city and railroad police from the last “tent city” on waste4.jpg

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Bannon Street December of 2007 (See Homeward Street Journal Volume 12.1). The Wasteland, un-affectionately named that by campers because of the harsh, open landscape which is muddy in the winter and sweltering in the summer, was the last recourse for people to go to pitch their tents after being harassed, cited or told to move by police or parkway rangers. The campers found a longer term refuge there, long enough to start friendships, bonds sometimes closer than mere neighbors. Here many campers boasted that they didn’t need locked doors to protect their belongings because everyone pretty much looked out for each other. Some found enough stability to maintain a job, which would have been harder if they had stayed in the shelter, because of the restrictive shelter hours and lack of storage for their belongings during the day. Though there was no formal organization as a whole, campers tended to cluster their tents into affinity groups, and since the area of the Wasteland is about 20 acres, there was no overcrowding or need to encroach on each other’s self-determined space. This Wasteland, though home to the homeless, was later deemed “unsuitable for habitation” and most would be evicted with nowhere else to go.

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After the Oprah Special aired on February 25th, a media frenzy of unprecedented vigor descended upon “tent city”. Local TV news crews
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Anne Williams (Bee photographer) and Cynthia Hubert (Bee reporter) on assignment
started to come out there regularly. Soon national news sources started to flurry around the tent city. Then International media came from many countries, speaking many different languages. It became an everyday hazard for the tent city residents to be approached by press and TV and video documentarians’ cameras. Some media representatives and other interested individuals embedded themselves in the situation by pitching their own tents out there. Loaves & Fishes staff (mostly Sr. Libby Fernandez and Joan Burke) were also interviewed daily or led the charge to coordinate media visits and interviews. Before all this media fuss, though, the Sacramento Bee had covered the tent city and had endorsed the tent city concept in three separate Editorials (plus one more recent endorsement in April), and the Sacramento News & Review endorsed the tent city concept years ago and more recently on February 5.

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Soon after the whole world became aware of the tent city in Sacramento, land-owners (SMUD, Union Pacific Railroad, and a private trust) made known that they wanted to have the campers evicted from their land. The Railroad police said that it was unsafe for people out there because they crossed the railroad tracks to get to services, so the Railroad would have to fence the area to prevent people from crossing the tracks (even though the entire U.S. is full of railroad tracks that are unfenced and crossed daily). SMUD also said that they wanted to fence in their land because it was not safe for people to live there.

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The city reacted to a light being shown on a blight in Sacramento as an unfavorable reflection on their city leadership. But the very fact that the media most favored visiting Sacramento for this popular symbol of our depressed economy, was the fact that our city had allowed homeless people to settle for awhile in one place. Sacramento city leadership may have received more approval than they imagined throughout the world for their humanitarian lack of strict enforcement of their anti-camping laws (which most US cities have in some form).

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Before this media spotlight on the Wasteland tent city, Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee, Loaves & Fishes and Francis House began a Safe Ground Campaign to have city and county sanctioned campgrounds where homeless people could pitch their tents legally and with basic sanitation, water and some services. Mayor Kevin Johnson seemed willing to explore the subject further and even mentioned the fact when he was campaigning for Mayor. But the City Manager and most of the City Council had been opposed to the idea.

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Mayor Johnson convened a task force on March 13 to specifically address short-term solutions for the current residents of the tent city area. Several “Safe Ground” proponents advocated allowing people to stay at the tent city, at least until there was enough housing for everyone or other sites were provided where they could pitch their tents in peace and safety. A tent city committee was formed along with several other committees that would address housing, shelter and other options, but the tent city committee has yet to meet.

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Over the course of several weeks the City identified around $1 million in new funding sources that would help keep the winter shelter open until July 1 with added amenities, and fund at least 40 more permanent shared housing opportunities for tent city residents. The shelter, normally holding only 150 beds, added a modular unit with 50 more beds, with some of the beds dedicated to couples. Other improvements for the shelter included a new manager, later wakeup times, some kennel runs for dogs, storage space for possessions that the owner would be able to keep there during the day, and other improvements. Many of these improvements may have been inspired by some of the campers that testified at a city council meeting on March 24 about some of the problems they had with the winter shelter. Many of the advocates congratulated the City of Sacramento for this extra effort towards helping more homeless people, but reminded City Council and task force members that there will still be over 1,000 people left without shelter or housing, who will be left with no other option than to sleep illegally outdoors.
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As the modular unit came on line at the winter shelter, so did the official eviction process by the city and railroad police, who handed out eviction notices to many of the campers on the Wasteland area and what campers call the “Snake Pit” area, which is just west of the railroad tracks. People were given several days to move their camps.

However, before the eviction deadline, the previously donated dumpster was removed, making it nearly impossible for campers to do their own cleanups. Officials complained to the media the first and second evening of the new shelter expansion, that most of the new beds were still vacant. They may not have considered that the tent city residents were too busy trying to pack and move their possessions for two days. Sure enough, around day three or four the shelter reached capacity.
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Previous to eviction day, some advocates thought that people could just move up river to the land owned by the private trust since there was no talk of evicting people coming from the trust. But the city and county got permission to evict people from that parcel by the owners. Meanwhile, many campers had relocated onto that land.
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the move
Supporters held vigil out at that piece of land to make sure there were no arrests or citations given out, and if there were to be arrests the supporters wanted to go to jail first. Police promised not to arrest anyone Thursday evening and Friday they said that they weren’t going to arrest anyone in this eviction process.

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On eviction day, May 16 (Thursday), the bulldozers, garbage trucks and many white buses full of orange vested workers descended upon the Wasteland. Campers were distraught. Most packed their belongings and carried packs and bags on their backs, on bicycle carts or took advantage of a few people with trucks. Police seemed civil and offered to arrange for a county truck to help in moving possessions to other locations or to take
to a storage area that had been arranged.
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Everyone was finally forced to leave by having their possessions thrown away in garbage trucks if they refused to move their things or arrange for the county truck to take their things to the designated storage area. After the tent city was mostly vacated, the media silently slipped off to other new sensationalisms.

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But what happened afterwards to all the promises of finding housing and shelter for all those tent city residents? At least 50 people were able to get into the shelter and some may get into other housing opportunities. The city said they were committed to finding housing options for 150 of the tent city residents within the next several months. Meanwhile, the majority of those homeless people that lived on the Wasteland and the Snake Pit area are currently without housing or shelter because there is no more available. And the other homeless people who lived outdoors elsewhere (over 1,000) are still without housing or shelter options.

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The shelter, though highly improved, is only available until July 1, at which time as many as 200 people will be forced to live on the streets. The promised storage area turned out to be a large shipping container where the possessions of the campers who did not go into shelter were stored without any identification tags, making it hard to reclaim possessions, and somewhat easy to claim other people’s possessions.

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The Safe Ground Campaign has lost some serious ground. Not only is there no where people can sleep legally, there has been increased reports of harassment from law enforcement. We hope this isn't the beginning of the "tough" part of the “tough love" Mayor Johnson promised. Most of the people from the tent city are still homeless and still outdoors but now without a neighborhood, without the simple provision of stability or protection from the elements with a simple tent structure to sleep in. They and all the others without shelter still need a safe and legal place to sleep until there is enough housing for everyone. They still need Safe Ground.


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county truck helping move people