City Officials Hope to Gain Insight into Homelessness in Seattle

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SACRAMENTO --

A coalition of city officials and homeless advocates from Sacramento will begin their trip to Seattle to observe and gain insight into how the city has handled its homeless population.

The trip comes after nearly three months of protest outside Sacramento City Hall and calls for the city to end its ban on outdoor camping, which protesters say discriminates against the homeless.

Coalition members say they’re looking for alternatives to the city’s camping ban and are considering a number of options. As it stands, the city orders police officers to write citations for, and arrest, those who sleep outdoors.

For Michelle Henderson, it’s never an easy night camping outside, underneath the freeway overpass where she often sleeps. She says often the few bucks she gets from strangers go to feed her dog.

“Most of the time I spoil her,” joked Henderson.

Her dog is also the reason many homeless shelters won’t accept Henderson. As a result, she sleeps outside, in violation of the city ordinance.

"They go home to their beds, they go home to their lives and their tables, and we stay outside … It's hard to camp out here,” said Henderson, who says it'll take more than a change in the law to keep her off the streets permanently.

"Shelters and more low-income houses, apartments,” said Henderson, who claims the $975 a month she receives in welfare benefits isn’t enough for her to rent an apartment and feed both herself and her dog for the month.

City officials, during their trip to Seattle this weekend, are looking for solutions like low-income housing alternatives.

"Seattle has a unique attitude toward homeless people. It actually wants to get them off the street,” said civil rights attorney Mark Merin, who was instrumental in planning the Seattle trip.

More than a dozen homeless advocates and city officials, including members of city council and Mayor Johnson's staff plan to go to Seattle.

Merin has been critical of the city's public camping ban, which has led to more than 60 arrests since January.

"Take half the money that's spent on enforcement and spend it on housing. Even temporary housing, even tent cities, and we've done a lot more for the vulnerable,” said Merin.

"Looking for solutions, you've got to keep an open mind and a clear mind. I think we can get there,” said City Councilman Jeff Harris, who'll also be in Seattle as a member of the city council’s homelessness task force.

He says ending the public camping ordinance isn’t a popular idea among council members, but he's open to ideas from Seattle and from protesters themselves, who he met with Monday.

"Yeah, actually there were a couple of things raised I’d like to pursue," said Harris.

While homeless advocates and city officials look for alternative solutions in Seattle, a bill to stop cities here in California from banning outdoor camping is making its way through the state Senate.

"This bill should not even be necessary," said State Senator Carole Liu, who questions the constitutionality of city ordinances that ban public camping.

She says municipalities should be targeting homelessness, rather than the homeless.

"We're hoping our municipal governments will take a serious look at how to deal with this problem other than writing tickets or throwing people in jail,” said Liu.

Merin agrees, adding that the ordinance creates criminal records for homeless people, who often times will have no recourse but to sleep outdoors.

"Everybody who's sleeping outdoors is a criminal under this ordinance and that is cruel and unusual," he said.

"It's not constitutional any more than debtors prison is constitutional,” he said.