Facing increasing pressure as the number of homeless people surges, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg asked Sacramento County leaders Tuesday for $53 million to provide services for that population.
Steinberg wants to pool the county’s mental health funds – which stem from a state millionaire tax he authored as a legislator – with federal grants obtained by the city to spend a combined $117 million in three years to reduce homelessness.
“Let’s merge our resources and literally get thousands of people off the streets,” he told the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
The most recent homeless count released in July found 3,665 people living without permanent shelter in Sacramento County and 2,000 of those people living outside. The total number of homeless was the highest number the county has ever recorded.
Steinberg needs the county’s financial and service help for the federal Whole Person Care grant the city has received. He sees the federal money as crucial to getting people off the street and into a more permanent housing situation. Under the grant, the city will receive $32 million from the federal government that matches $32 million in local funds.
Preparing for the winter, the city recently proposed opening about 300 beds on Railroad Drive off Del Paso Boulevard in North Sacramento. The city eventually wants to build a permanent shelter with 200 beds on the former Lumberjack site adjacent to the Royal Oaks light-rail station.
Steinberg’s request Tuesday spurred a discussion of complicated funding possibilities and concluded with supervisors asking staff to return next month with options. A majority of supervisors indicated they are willing to support at least some of Steinberg’s proposal.
Under the city’s proposal, federal money would fund case management and other services to keep the homeless and those at risk of homelessness out of emergency rooms and in appropriate services – mental health care and substance abuse treatment, both of which would be provided by the county.
To meet those objectives, Steinberg recommends that the city reallocate funding the county expects to receive from the Mental Health Services Act, the law he co-authored as a state legislator and voters approved in 2004. Under the law, the state collects a 1 percent tax on millionaires and distributes revenues to counties to provide mental health care.
Sacramento County staff oppose Steinberg’s plan, saying the funds are already earmarked for other priorities and that it’s not clear that funding will be available as soon as Steinberg hopes.
The county expects to spend $22 million to refinance existing housing for the mentally ill, and $36.8 million for a planned treatment program. In each case, the county does not expect to spend the money for several years.
Uma Zykofsky, the county’s mental health director, said she does not want to take the risk that the county can’t find other funding for the mentally ill housing. The program could face a foreclosure risk and force residents into homelessness, she said.
Steinberg said the county should not save money for future expenses with a growing homeless population at risk now. He also said the county faces the possibility of losing Mental Health Services Act funding by not spending it quickly enough.
“It’s against the law to hold this kind of money,” he said.
Toby Ewing, executive director of the Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission, told supervisors the county is at risk of losing unspent funds. The Mental Health Services Act said most funds must be spent within three years, but the state did not fully enforce the provision.
That changed with a bill approved this year, and auditors have identified $11.4 million in unspent funds the county stands to lose. The state plans to redistribute money not spent in time.
Paul Lake, who heads the county’s Social Services Agency, said he is not worried about spending funds before the state attempts to take it back. He said the county has budgeted more mental health expenses than it expects in revenues.