Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Mayor Kevin Johnson addresses homelessness by Jonathan Mendick, published on September 22, 2009 at 9:02PM

Mayor Kevin Johnson addresses homelessness

by Jonathan Mendick, published on September 22, 2009 at 9:02PM

Storyline: News in Sacramento

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Tuesday morning, Mayor Kevin Johnson was joined by a handful of Safe Ground supporters for a weekly press conference inside City Hall. After reiterating his goal to end homelessness in Sacramento, he invited Sister Libby Fernandez and Greg Bunker, the respective executive directors of Loaves and Fishes and Francis house, as well as a homeless man named Thomas Jackson Ashmore III, to speak.

Johnson spoke about his meeting over the weekend with campers at the recently vacated 1220 C St. campground owned by Mark Merin. At the camp site, Merin had also been involved in a property dispute over the land with the neighboring Pedro and Gracilla Hernandez residence.

Johnson mentioned that a comprehensive plan to end homelessness would be launched in October, but also that two immediate issues are the most pressing: creating a legal "safe ground" called Stepping Stone; and helping finda location for winter shelters as they are set to open in mid November.

Johnson has created a task force for both issues, but it will take up to three to six months to create Stepping Stone, he said. Some key factors the task force is looking at for Stepping Stone include size, location, resident selection criteria, governance, security and services.

"The county cut 84 percent of their funding for the homeless," Johnson said. "They're talking about making even more cuts; that means there's a disproportionate amount of cuts going to the homeless population."

"This is a moment that we advocates really appreciate," said Fernandez. "This is the first time a city mayor has stepped up to the plate to think not only for the city but also for the county and the region of Sacramento when it deals with homelessness."

"We need to stop the arrests on people being homeless; we need to put a memorandum on enforcement of camping ordinances," said Ashmore, a homeless man, whom Johnson introduced to the crowd by the nickname "Hawk."

"It's a waste of taxpayer money. Every time we are arrested, it costs between $1500 and $2000 to take us all into jail," he added. "Then we're put back eight hours later on the streets, just to be arrested again."

Bunker also applauded Johnson and asked the entire community to join the effort to think of solutions to house the homeless.

Asked if Johnson would do a good job in helping homeless people, Merin said last week, "I think the Mayor is certainly well intentioned. The question is: can he get the majority of the city council to support him? It just depends on him knowing how to get something accomplished."

"The goal is to get people into housing," said Tim Brown, director of the Ending Chronic Homelessness initiative, in a phone call before the press conference on Tuesday. "We're spending so much on keeping them homeless, it's cheaper to provide housing and services in a lot of cases for chronically homeless."

"With federal stimulus money, for the first time, we're going to be able to prevent homelessness," Brown added. About $4.8 million will become available Oct. 1 for homelessness.

"We've housed 350 people in two-and-a-half years," Brown said. "What has made a dent is the switch to permanent housing."

As far as the vacated Safe Ground location at the Merin property (only a pair of port-a-potties remains), the Hernandez family have expressed "gratitude and relief" that the camp is gone, said their lawyer Aldon Bolanos. Their health has been deteriorating since the campers moved behind their property, Bolanos said.

"They're trying to get on with their lives," he added. "They absolutely are traumatized and it's going to be a while if ever before life gets back to normal for them."

"I'm not going to tell you that what [Merin] is trying to do [for the homeless] is wrong," Bolanos said. "This time when he did what he did, it really trampled on the lives of some innocent people; the real civil rights that were violated here were Pedro and Gracilla Hernandez."

Bolanos explained his view of the homeless.

"This whole episode really seems to underscore a leadership problem in this city, where no individual or group is willing to take accountability for what was happening here for over a month. This [homeless] situation is not going to go away, and providing this 'safe ground' outside of the downtown grid is just going to push the problem into someone else's backyard and the city is going to experience sad and difficult times and consequences."

Photographs one, two and three credit Sacramento Press staff reporter Suzanne Hurt. All other photographs credit staff reporter Jonathan Mendick.



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