SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - The mayor of California's state capital unveiled plans on Thursday to shut down a sprawling "tent city" of the homeless that has drawn worldwide media attention as a symbol of U.S. economic decline.
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson promised to first make alternative shelter space available for the estimated 150 men and women who inhabit the squalid encampment near the American River, at the edge of the city's downtown.
Johnson, who toured the area with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger a day earlier, said he hoped to have the ramshackle settlement cleared of tents and debris in the next two to three weeks.
"We want to move as quickly as we can," he told a news conference, insisting the city was determined to treat the tent dwellers with compassion.
"They are people out there. We have to do whatever we can do," he said. "We as a city are not going to shy away from it. We're going to tackle it head-on."
Advocates for the homeless applauded the mayor's action. Municipal authorities in Sacramento have been debating the fate of the tent city for weeks.
Sacramento has one of the highest mortgage foreclosure rates in the United States, and the homeless total in the city and surrounding county is estimated to have jumped nearly 10 percent last year to nearly 2,700. About half are believed to be living outdoors, according to a local survey.
The tent city site, near an almond-processing plant beside a railroad freight line, made global headlines after it was featured last month on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
Local shelter organizers helped fuel media excitement by suggesting the tent city mushroomed with the arrival of newly homeless men and women, formerly from the middle class and forced by sudden economic hardship to take up residence in tents along the river. One activist for the homeless estimated that 10 percent of the tent inhabitants fit that profile.
A closer examination of the site, including interviews with camp residents and police officers who patrol the area, turned up little if any evidence that true "recession refugees" were living among the chronically homeless there.
Tent city residents and police say the camp had existed for at least a year and had expanded after several smaller clusters of homeless settlements were shut down.
Johnson said his plan included enlarging existing shelters, opening a short-term tented shelter area at a fairground, and creating "permanent housing opportunities" for an additional 40 homeless individuals.
He said city officials would meet individually with each of the tent dwellers to discuss options, and a special task force would finish devising a long-term strategy for all the city's known homeless.
The plan, which will be financed from various public funds, will be submitted to the City Council for approval next week.
Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Peter Cooney