SACRAMENTO, CA - The recent recession, home foreclosures and high unemployment rates have dramatically increased the number of people who are homeless in California.
Homeless shelters are at max capacity and regularly turn away folks in need. According to National Alliance to End Homelessness, on any given night, there are over 130,000 people in California without a home and without shelter.
Yet, in much of the state, it's considered a crime to be homeless.
In 2009, Oprah Winfrey brought her camera crews to Sacramento to film "Tent City," a 400 person makeshift homeless shelter along the American River.
Shortly after the story aired, Sacramento officials tore the place down, flattening tents, destroying personal property, and displacing hundreds. Sacramento, like many counties in the state, has an anti-camping ordinance. Under the law, it's considered illegal to camp on public or private property for more than 24 hours.
"In effect, it criminalizes homelessness," Safe Ground Sacramento Steve Waters said. "This is a point that's hard to make and hard to help the public understand that if you don't own your own property and you don't have the economic resources to rent. And rents are high in Sacramento; there is no where that it is legal for you to be. You have nowhere to go that you can sleep and lay your head down legally."
Last year, an investigator from the United Nations, Catarina De Albuquerque, visited Sacramento to see how the state's homeless were being treated. She said the conditions for the state's homeless were worse than a third world country. She cited a general lack of access to clean water and adequate sanitation.
Earlier this week, De Albuquerque sent a letter to the mayor of Sacramento expressing her concerns.
Homeless shelters and homeless support centers around the state are calling on local officials to re-open closed public restrooms and fix the broken water fountains. They're also asking their local officials to open up a safe space that homeless people could set up their tents, without being disturbed by police.
There is actually a state law already on the books that would allow local officials to do just that. The seldom used state law allows local officials to declare a state of emergency and set up a sanctioned area for homeless folks.
Local officials can declare that state of emergency at any time..
"It can be for many reasons it can be for natural disaster, but it can also be for human reasons like this," Waters said. "We just have a social problem that's beyond our control right now to completely harness and we need, we need emergency actions until we can get a better handle on providing enough housing and shelters and so on."
Homeless support providers, like Watters, said something needs to be done to protect the state's homeless.
Watters is currently working on getting grants to build a transitional housing community in the Sacramento area called Safe Ground. But, it will be at least a year until he can acquire the land.
In the meantime Waters said he's going to work to educate the public about the pervasiveness of the problem. He hopes the more folks know about the problem, the more they'll push their lawmakers to do something about it.