Mending Broken Hearts at Sacramento's New Tent Village

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Elizabeth looks weary, pale, and drawn, gently wringing her hands, toying with the hospital admittance bracelet still encircling her wrist. Slumped in the kind of canvas camping chair that makes any other sitting position a feat of strenuous exertion, Elizabeth closely watches Charles, her husband of forty-one years, as he bashes around inside the donated tent, arranging their borrowed bedding. Their 5-piece set of matching maroon luggage might not all fit inside, but the couple will have a roof-of-sorts for the night, sleeping side-by-side as two of the country's newest homeless citizens.

I met Charles Zimmerman at a Sacramento City Council meeting Tuesday evening, where a dozen or more homeless advocates had turned out to lobby the local government. Charles struck a marked contrast to other speakers from the SafeGround movement, a coalition of homeless individuals and non-profit organizations lobbying for Sacramento: 1.) to amend the anti-camping ordinance used as legal grounds for most homeless arrests and 2.) to establish a patch of public property as a campsite of last-resort for those with nowhere else to go. SafeGround established its purpose with vigor and urgency during the struggle to sustain the city's notorious "Tent City." Such homeless encampments have existed in Sacramento throughout its history, but the Oprah effect made this Tent City a highly-publicized embarrassment. Sacramento swept Tent City of residents and bulldozed the site in April.

The hundreds of homeless who called Tent City home didn't simply evaporate. They dispersed. Retreated from public view. Crept beyond range of public radar. Small groupings stay constantly on the move, rarely sleeping in the same wooded area, abandoned warehouse, or vacant lot for two nights in a row. More than 24 hours in one place would put them in violation of the city's anti-camping ordinance, giving police grounds for arrest, and risking seizure of their precious meager possessions. 

But in the past few weeks, a strong-willed and resilient group of former Tent City residents has decided to defy the government policy they say criminalizes homelessness. The group has steeled themselves to fight a fierce battle for the rights of their downtrodden, demeaned, and largely misunderstood brethren, deploying weapons of their peaceful and peculiar conflict: tents, sleeping bags, fold-out cots, one well-worn camping stove, two port-a-potties, and, of course, a lawyer.

Since the end of August, local attorney and homeless advocate Mark Merin has granted open permission--aside from a drugs and alcohol 0 tolerance requirement--for the homeless to camp on a vacant lot he owns at 1221 C Street in downtown Sacramento. As expected, regular police raids on the new Tent Village--including two middle-of-the-night sweeps arresting everyone for violating the city's anti-camping ordinance--have dwindled its population from about fifty a few weeks ago, to a couple dozen stalwart rebels today. 

Merin recently negotiated a nearly half-million dollar settlement from the county to resolve a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of a group of homeless who'd had their possessions confiscated, and is expected use recent arrests to challenge the anti-camping ordinance. Meanwhile, the city government and Tent Village's next-door neighbors have each filed suit against Merin, charging him with creating a public nuisance. 

Organizers acknowledge the Tent Village site is unfeasible as a long-term solution, most particularly because the size makes it insufficient to fulfill current community needs. But now that Mayor Kevin Johnson has announced the county will have no funding available for emergency shelters this winter, the ongoing controversy and prominent base of operations helps keep SafeGround's cause at the forefront of public policy discussions.

Luckily for SafeGround, it only takes about 15 minutes of brisk walking to get from Tent Village to City Hall. Wearing their trademark fluorescent green SafeGround T-shirts at the City Council meeting on Tuesday, vociferously intense activists took impassioned 2-minute turns at the podium. Contrasted with the motley array of homeless who preceded him, the mild-mannered Charles Zimmerman, sharply groomed and wearing dark blue polyester dress pants and wrinkle-free plaid collared shirt, sparked a shift in the atmosphere as he tentatively approached the microphone. Within the first few of his soft-spoken words, it felt like Charles had the whole room holding its collective breath.

"My name is Charles Zimmerman. I am a retired 22-year veteran of the US Armed Forces. I was laid off last year. We lost our home. My wife and I both just had heart attacks. And now we're homeless." Charles told of rejection by all the homeless shelters because of the couple's age (62) and/or poor health. By contrast, the campers of SafeGround welcomed Charles and Elizabeth to Tent Village. He spoke of these wonderful people he had just met, who lacked homes, but not boundless kindness and generosity.

On our way back to the campsite, Charles related a more extended version of his journey into homelessness. Since retiring from the military in the early 90s, Charles has worked operating heavy machinery, usually grading construction sites in preparation for large commercial real estate developments. Clearly there's not much demand for that these days. 

After he was laid off in June 2008, Charles and Elizabeth quickly recognized that few employers in Tustin, California had any jobs available. Those that were hiring did not consider 62-year-olds the most attractive candidates. Unable to find work, savings depleted, with no money for mortgage payments, the bank foreclosed on the Zimmerman's house in March. The couple moved into the spare bedroom of some friends, who were struggling through their own recession woes and needed help paying bills. 

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Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer, and book editor who specializes in national security, terrorism, and war. She also writes for the food blog Feed The Masses.

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