Sacramento seeks solutions for its wandering army of homeless

It was a chilly November night on Bannon Street.

In front of the Union Gospel Mission, where men praised God in exchange for a hot meal and a thin mattress, a breeze rippled across a row of colorful tents.

More than 100 people were making their home here, creating a fragile community of the pitied and loathed.

Some of them sprawled on dirty sleeping bags on the sidewalk, waiting their turns for one of the beds inside. Some perched on rickety chairs outside their dome tents, drinking King Cobra and telling stories. Their bicycles and clothes and trash were scattered everywhere. They hardly seemed to notice the large rats that prowled the premises in search of bits of discarded food.

The weather has since turned bitingly cold, and the makeshift campsite just north of downtown Sacramento has vanished. Police, responding to complaints from the neighborhood, have chased the homeless men and women away. But the raggedy masses have not gone very far, and they are almost certain to return, only to be rousted again.

It is a chess game that most everyone agrees has to end.

A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of the Sacramento campers argues that the city's practice of rousting campers, issuing citations against them for sleeping outside and sometimes destroying their belongings is illegal. The suit proposes, among other things, that the city establish "high tolerance" campgrounds where law enforcement will allow homeless encampments, acquire one or more vacant lots for "dignity villages" similar to one in Portland, and develop an indoor "tent city" where people could live for lengthy periods.

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