It’s becoming clear why the City of Sacramento and County of Sacramento are not effectively working together to combat the homelessness crisis in the region.
Even though the need for homeless services is spiking in nearly every local community, the County of Sacramento has been rebuffing Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s proposal that the city and county pool more resources to get more than 3,000 people off local streets and into housing over the next three years.
Where is the disconnect?
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It turns out county resistance is an inside job. Not many people know who Nav Gill and Paul Lake are. But these highly paid senior staffers – the county CEO and the head of the county Social Services Agency, respectively – both earn more than $200,000 a year and have been the primary obstacles to forging a concentrated city-county homeless effort in Sacramento.
At an Oct. 17 Board of Supervisors meeting, where the proposal was supposed to be discussed in earnest, it was these senior staffers and others who further delayed any county action on partnering with the city until the Nov. 7 supervisors meeting.
Meanwhile, it’s getting colder and the rainy season is on the way, troubling developments for people who live outdoors. As The Bee’s Brad Branan reported last week: “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 has been sounding the alarm for a year. Along with several shorter-term measures, including the controversial shelters he is proposing in the already impoverished north Sacramento neighborhoods, he is pushing for a coordinated city-county effort to combat the growing need.
The city is poised to invest $64 million over nearly four years through a federal “Whole Person Care” grant awarded earlier this year. The money, which includes matching city funds and investments from local hospitals, will pay for a comprehensive outreach program that will connect homeless people with mental and health services designed to keep them out of emergency rooms and help get them ready for permanent housing.
But there is a catch: The Whole Person Care grant cannot directly pay for substance abuse and mental health services needed to keep people off the streets. Those are provided by the county, and the county’s current overburdened system is not prepared to handle the potential influx of people.
For months, Steinberg has been trying to get the county to commit to expanding those services, but the county has been reluctant, saying it does not have the money and that county officials already have plans in place for tackling the homeless issue.
Steinberg has been asking the county to reallocate around $54 million over three years to complement the Whole Person Care grant program, which has a use-it-or-lose-it clock ticking on its federal funding component. That, of course, is a large chunk of money from the county, but it also represents Sacramento’s best chance to make a dent in what has become a serious health and safety issue.
Other California cities have seen deadly Hepatitis A outbreaks because of poor sanitary conditions in their expanding homeless populations. The American River has contained hazardous levels of E. coli bacteria that exceed federal safety standards. The cause, in part, is human waste from a virtual village of people living in illegal campsites along the lower stretch.
After a summer of backroom sniping and personality clashes between city and county, at least three supervisors – Phil Serna, Patrick Kennedy and Don Nottoli – seemed willing to use the Oct. 17 meeting to determine if they could partner with Steinberg.
But in order to do so, they needed answers to straightforward questions such as: How much money does the county have available to partner with the city? And how much could they use while still maintaining other county-budget priorities?
Those seem like questions county staff – including Gill and Lake – should have been prepared to answer in light of the meeting’s agenda. However, they couldn’t provide any substantive responses, and what those of us watching the meeting instead saw was Serna’s jaw clenching like a fist. Meanwhile, Kennedy’s face darkened and Nottoli seemed perplexed.
It was bizarre.
At one point during the meeting, Gill couldn’t explain the exact status of $98.4 million in unspent funds the county has received from the state through the Mental Health Services Act.
It’s deeply ironic that MHSA was written by none other than Steinberg when he was in the legislature more than a decade ago. The act imposes a 1 percent tax on personal income that exceeds $1 million. Taxes collected from the act are supposed to go to counties so they can bolster their mental health programs.
But counties, like Sacramento, have been banking millions in unspent MHSA funds for years. State legislators are noticing and are threatening to start pulling some of those millions back. So Sacramento supervisors wanted to know: Where is Sacramento’s $98 million in unspent MHSA funds?
Is it in the bank? Is it in a mattress? Has it already been committed? Can it be used to help fund the $54 million Steinberg is requesting?
Nobody could explain the current status of the funds with any real specificity. Let’s have a workshop on Nov. 7 and hash it out, Gill said, a classic move by county staff to punt the ball a few more yards.
The response from elected officials was terse: There had better be answers on Nov. 7, because supervisors will be making a critical decision about tens of millions in MHSA funding, and leaving everyone hanging with blank stares and shoulder shrugs isn’t an option.
“I’m not beyond taking whatever action is needed and having it vetted by an outside party,” Kennedy said. “Before I can go out and spend money I need to know what is in my checkbook.”
County supervisors specifically wanted to know more about smaller pots of money within the overall $98 million in unspent MHSA funds. Where does the county stand on the $36.8 million slated to implement a complimentary housing program for people in need of mental health services called “No Place Like Home”? Or the $22 million expected to refinance existing permanent supportive housing for the mentally ill?
“We need to know where that money is,” Serna said.
County staff, which has come out against Steinberg’s proposal, offered few detailed answers, although it alluded to long-range future projects and said money had been earmarked.
For the Oct. 17 meeting, Serna and Kennedy invited Toby Ewing – executive director of the state Mental Health Services Commission – to come educate their Board about restrictions, permitted uses, and, in many instances, the expiring time limits associated with spending MHSA funds. Ewing shed much needed light on these subjects, but also reminded supervisors that the state is no longer looking the other way on unspent MHSA funds. This year the state passed legislation that requires counties by next summer to come up with a way to spend the funds or risk having them given to other counties that do have concrete plans.
Serna said he was dismayed that county staff didn’t seem to grasp the importance of using MHSA funds in time frames mandated by the state.
A county spokesperson told me Thursday that Gill was out of town and unavailable for comment. He is one of the highest paid executives in Sacramento County, controls the budget of the biggest government in the region, and yet is almost anonymous.
What makes these delays border on obscene is that Sacramento County has spent years not doing enough. In the city, Cesar Chavez Park – the centerpiece downtown – is overrun by homeless people. Local business leaders say they have lost convention bookings after groups were scared off by a proliferation of homeless people downtown. Folsom, Rancho Cordova and Citrus Heights all have seen upticks in homeless people.
“We have a crisis today, we have people dying on the street, and I don’t think it’s the best idea to be budgeting 20 years out,” Kennedy said of his own staff.
Said Serna: “(When) you start making policy in weird ways, including restricting access to information, or selective characterization of facts, or claiming not to know the facts ... that’s a death knell as far as I’m concerned.”
Whether heads roll or not at the county is interesting but far less relevant than the crisis at hand. Sacramento is crying out for a real organized effort to combat its massive homeless problem.
If elected officials ultimately decide they can’t craft a solution, then voters can hold them accountable if voters so choose. But I didn’t elect the people holding up this process and neither did you.
Serna, Kennedy, Nottoli and their supervisor colleagues should either make them do their jobs, or fire them and find people who can.