If a mother and her children are sleeping on the floor in a friend’s apartment to avoid sleeping in a car, should she be considered homeless?
The answer could change how Sacramento County distributes money for homeless people in the future.
The Board of Supervisors had an emotional, hours-long meeting about homelessness Tuesday in which county leaders discussed whether families living temporarily under a roof should qualify for homeless resources. They also considered whether the county should require emergency shelters to do more to move homeless people into permanent housing.
Three family shelters, Next Move, Volunteers of America and St. John’s Shelter for Real Change, receive about $2.1 million through county contracts that expire in June. Cynthia Cavanaugh, the county’s new director of homeless services, proposed the county require shelters to focus on serving families living on the streets and to prioritize finding permanent housing for those families.
She said communities that have reduced homelessness have used a federal government strategy of “Housing First.” That focuses on placing people into permanent housing first and then providing the services they need, such as substance abuse treatment, career training and education for children.
Cavanaugh said the county should focus its limited resources on homeless families literally living on the streets without alternatives such as friends, family or a motel because they are in the most dire situations. In June 2015, the county found an average of 41 percent of people entering county-funded family emergency shelters were coming from some sort of housed situation.
The proposal could cut off that group of people from services, a change that family shelter leaders oppose. They said that families shouldn’t be penalized for being able to find temporary housing solutions until they can get into a county-funded shelter.
Marilyn Mann, the program director for the Next Move Family Shelter, said a lot of families will double up in friends’ or relatives’ apartments or stretch dollars to stay in a motel. Parents are worried about losing their children to Child Protective Services, so they try to stay under the radar, she said.
Using creative solutions to avoid sleeping in a car or tent already can make families ineligible for some federal housing programs, Mann said. Next Move is a federal Housing First provider, but many of its clients are staying the maximum 120 days because they can’t find housing or supportive housing programs they qualify for, she said.
“Definitely people in our shelter today, but for the way we define chronically homeless, would absolutely qualify for permanent supportive housing programs,” Mann said.
Supervisor Don Nottoli said he would like to see the county come up with a Sacramento-specific definition of homelessness that doesn’t necessarily exclude those families.
“I get a little bit antsy, I guess, about that when we begin to take large percentages and say, ‘Well, they’re not really homeless,’ ” Nottoli said. “That statement itself can send us off in a whole different direction.”
Mann and several speakers at Tuesday’s meeting said one difficulty with Housing First is the lack of affordable housing in Sacramento. Rent for low-income Sacramentans increased by 12 percent this September compared to one year prior, according to a survey by Yardi Matrix, a commercial apartment industry surveyor. The survey found that about 96 percent of all apartments were rented in August.
County supervisors are set to hear another presentation from Cavanaugh on Nov. 15 on ways the county can increase the permanent housing stock.
While most county-funded service providers are focused on a Housing First approach, Cavanaugh said they need to direct more resources toward getting their clients into housing. The programs that receive county contracts next fiscal year should focus on getting people into housing as quickly as possible, she said. Services and treatment can come later.
At least one county-funded program, St. John’s Shelter for Real Change, doesn’t believe the Housing First model is right for the women and children in its shelter. Executive Director Michele Steeb said St. John’s clients would not be successful if they went into housing before receiving the mental health and substance abuse services St. John’s provides. Slightly more than half struggle with mental illness and about three-quarters have substance abuse issues.
St. John’s provides therapy, employment training, career placement, developmental screenings for children and parenting classes all in one place. Steeb said that under a Housing First approach, families are stretched thin by having to attend appointments and take children to school in various locations across town.
St. John’s served 572 women and children in 2015. It can shelter up to 180 women and children at a time and has 250 people on the wait list, Steeb said. Thirty percent of clients are coming directly from the street, meeting the federal definition of homelessness, she said.
While county supervisors did not take action Tuesday, they asked staff to find temporary solutions for families sleeping in cars or tents. In particular, they wanted housing for families with children at Mustard Seed School in Sacramento, which last week asked the county to fund more emergency beds.
Supervisor Phil Serna said at the end of the meeting: “We can’t just talk all the time. We have to actually do once in a while.”