Good intentions can come at a cost, such as having to smell urine or see human feces on a daily basis.
Good intentions can scare away customers and damage livelihoods. They can bring vandalism and theft to businesses run by hardworking people who nevertheless feel compassion for those committing crimes against them.
Good intentions can confirm the axiom that every action has a reaction, and the proverb that no good deed goes unpunished.
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The city of Sacramento, led by its new mayor, Darrell Steinberg, has made homeless services one of its biggest priorities – if not the biggest. A champion of the poor and those suffering from mental illness, Steinberg is driven by good intentions.
“This is a moral issue,” Steinberg has said more than once of his motivations to do more for homeless people.
Steinberg’s mission to help those living on the streets took on even more urgency after the deaths of two homeless men outside City Hall in January. Both had sought shelter there in violation of the city’s anti-camping ordinance. One man, identified as Michael Nunes, 50, had been hospitalized after falling and hitting his head the day before he died, according to other homeless people who knew him.
The mayor described himself as “heartbroken” by the deaths. “I have been and continue to be hellbent on making this situation much better,” Steinberg said in January.
After the deaths, Steinberg pushed to open another emergency warming center, one that houses 40 people overnight, in a city building at 904 11th Street. It’s a block from council chambers, where city officials have been berated for more than a year by homeless advocates exhorting those in elected office to do more. It’s also a block from Cesar Chavez Plaza, which should be the front porch of downtown Sacramento but isn’t.
Instead, Cesar Chavez Plaza is ground zero for the societal malady Steinberg is making the cornerstone of his political life. Created in the classic tradition of the city plaza and bordered on one side by City Hall and the stately Citizen Hotel on the other, Cesar Chavez Plaza has become the de facto staging ground for the warming center.
Don’t believe me? Visit it for yourself. You’ll see people essentially camping there during the daytime. You’ll see a lot of pit bulls. You’ll see pouches of discarded personal belongings of inmates released from the nearby county jail. You’ll see people sitting at tables or napping on the ground until it’s time to walk a block to line up for the shelter, which will remain open until the end of March.
Cesar Chavez Plaza long has had its share of homeless people, but some downtown residents say that population has increased since the warming center opened. “The sheer amount of people that congregate and hang out downtown has gotten worse,” said Liezet Arnold, who owns a floral shop near the Citizen Hotel. “I have to step over human feces every day. I have to step over people to get into my business. It’s not a good feeling.”
Arnold has been in business downtown for nearly 20 years. She said downtown is as challenged as she’s ever seen it with its homeless population.
It’s not just the compassionate policies of Steinberg and his council colleagues causing the erosion of Cesar Chavez Plaza and the sanitary challenges of surrounding streets and alleys. Record rainfall and flooding have pushed homeless people off the rivers and into downtown. Some wonder how much Prop. 47, the statewide initiative that reduced some drug felonies to misdemeanors so that prisoners could be paroled and ease California’s overcrowded prisons, is affecting communities.
Clearly, Sacramento needs more housing options for homeless people – as do most big cities in the United States. But what’s missing in Sacramento, what Steinberg and his colleagues need to understand more clearly, is that their policies are having negative consequences for people who also care about downtown and share concerns about the well-being of their fellow citizens.
These business people also should be heard. But the voices that get the most attention are often those that scream the loudest, and in this case, that includes homeless advocates.
Is there an easy and simple solution to homelessness? No. But there is a solution to inattentiveness, and right now Steinberg and his council colleagues are being inattentive to the collateral damage caused by their good intentions. Cesar Chavez Plaza is supposed to be a place for everyone, but it’s not. It’s not safe, it’s not sanitary, and right now it looks as bad as it ever has.
Where are the politicians advocating for business people negatively affected by the current state of downtown?
Admittedly, it’s a terribly complicated issue. In January, before Steinberg’s 11th Street warming center had opened, the Downtown Partnership – the business consortium for the 66-block urban core that stretches from the waterfront to 16th Street and from H to N streets – did a one-night count of homeless people in the area and found 80 people living outside, said Dion Dwyer, a director for the Downtown Partnership.
A second count after Steinberg’s homeless shelter had opened found 84 homeless people outside, even though there were 40 people inside the shelter. That illustrates the smoke-through-your-fingers peril that can come with seeking more homeless services. The number of homeless people on the street in the area didn’t change after the shelter opened, Dwyer said.
Has the city taken a step back on enforcing city ordinances against homeless people in fear of running afoul of advocates or Steinberg’s goals? Interim police Chief Brian Louie said his department has not backed off its mission of keeping everyone safe. He said his department is trying to strike a balance between order and compassion.
“Some homeless folks don’t have anywhere to go, and we all have to be a little more tolerant,” Louie said. “We also need to make sure homeless people aren’t impacting others. ... It’s a complex balancing act.”
Right now, that act seems out of balance.
Many community members are investing their livelihoods in making downtown Sacramento a better place, and that growing list of people includes restaurateur Ernesto Delgado. Owner of Mayahuel, the K Street Mexican restaurant, Delgado is set to open a new eatery in Cesar Chavez Plaza this spring. It will be called La Cosecha, which is Spanish for The Harvest. Currently, homeless people camp around the construction site where his new spot will be.
Delgado is aware of the current state of the park, but he wants to be there despite the financial risks. In that way, Delgado exemplifies all the business people who believe in downtown enough to invest their professional lives in it. Steinberg and other council members should remember that commitment more than they do.
“We can make Chavez park a destination,” Delgado said. “We’re going to beautify the plaza. We’re going to try to bring the energy and the beauty you see in the plazas of cities in Mexico. ... Here you have a plaza that is centrally located, but (essentially) only one population uses it.”
That won’t change until or unless Sacramento leaders remember that they represent everyone.