Sacramento County takes heat for closing winter homeless shelters

Published: Friday, Sep. 23, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Friday, Sep. 23, 2011 - 11:22 am

For as long as anyone can remember, Sacramento County has funded a seasonal shelter program to house the homeless during cold and rainy winter nights.

Funding for that program has been shrinking year by year as the county has struggled with budget deficits. This year, it disappeared altogether.

On Thursday, homeless advocates lashed out at county leaders, arguing that shelter beds are as important as public safety and other programs that have remained a priority for county funding.

"We still have open golf courses," Joan Burke of Loaves & Fishes homeless services said following a news conference. "We still have a police department and firefighters. This is just as important. For some, it's a matter of life and death."

County officials have pointed out that they are in the process of turning over administration of homeless services to a nonprofit organization, Sacramento Steps Forward. The group will manage millions of dollars in mostly federal funds to administer a range of programs.

But Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Housing Alliance, said the new nonprofit has "neither the mandate, responsibility or capacity" to operate winter shelters.

"The county is abdicating its responsibility," said Erlenbusch. "We have 41 days until winter shelter historically starts, and there is no funding and no money. It's unconscionable."

Ben Burton, the new director of Sacramento Steps Forward, said foundations, private citizens and businesses must work to fill the funding gap.

"This is a community issue, not just a governmental issue," he said. "We need to ring the alarm that winter is coming. Instead of pointing fingers, we need to all join together and help."

Cassandra Jennings, a former assistant city manager who is working with homeless advocates on the issue, said she is confident that some form of winter shelter will evolve in the coming weeks.

"Churches are gearing up, people are applying for grants, conversations are happening among public and private entities," Jennings said. "I think people care."

In past years, the county has spent up to $700,000 for winter shelter programs.

Last year, it provided $150,000 for shelter beds for families.

The area's faith community opened churches, synagogues and other houses of worship to homeless singles last winter, housing 80 to 100 people in rotating locations. The "nomadic shelter" program will be in place again this year, organizers said.

But more beds will be needed, advocates said.

"Right now we have a plan for 100 single homeless adults," said Erlenbusch. A recent census counted more than 2,300 homeless men, women and children in the county. Existing shelters consistently have waiting lists, even when the weather is mild.

Kayana Alexander, 31, was among several homeless people who spoke at the news conference. She has been trying to find a shelter for her family since their rental home burned down two months ago.

Alexander, a home caregiver, said she recently got laid off, and her husband, Kenneth, a forklift driver, is trying to support the family with temporary labor jobs.

"I call every shelter, every day, and they always tell me, 'No space,' " she said. The family, including five children, has been "staying here and there," at motels and on sofas.

"I am afraid that come winter, we will have nowhere to go," Alexander said. "It could happen, but I pray to God that it doesn't."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Cynthia Hubert



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