On any given night, 2,500 people are homeless in Sacramento County. For a variety of reasons – some understandable, some less so – that number has been essentially unchanged for at least seven years.
This is as frustrating as it is disgraceful. Even with the financial crash and recession, homelessness nationally has declined by 11 percent since 2007, according to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development figures.
California’s homeless population is down 22 percent for that time frame, the largest statewide drop in the nation.
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By any measure, Sacramento is lagging. The Turlock-Modesto-Stanislaus County, which was hit hard by the recession, area has logged a 23 percent reduction since 2007 in its homeless headcount. In Fresno and Merced counties, the drop has been an even more impressive 39 percent.
There are all sorts of theories around why Sacramento may be different. It has railroads. It’s warm. It’s a capital. And the county’s cash-strapped hand-off of leadership in homeless services three years ago clearly has been a disruption, though Sacramento Steps Forward, the nonprofit that since has filled the void, finally appears to be getting some traction here.
But when people who have been scraping out an existence for decades along the riverbanks of West Sacramento are suddenly being housed by the score in Yolo County, it’s a sign that the Sacramento side of the river is running out of excuses.
Since Oprah Winfrey singled out Sacramento’s homeless crisis in 2009, causing much local consternation, there has been too much turf-guarding, too little commitment by public and private agencies and a seemingly intractable – and anachronistic – debate over whether a “Safe Ground” permanent homeless camp could be the answer.
Hint: It isn’t a long-term solution. The rest of the country is putting roofs over heads while do-gooders here argue. In human and economic terms, this long tug of war between old and new tactics, established and new players, is not only provincial, but a luxury this city can no longer afford.
Resources exist. Led by former state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, the state has appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years for outreach in jails, emergency rooms and shelters, for programs addressing mental illness and for affordable housing.
There is federal Housing and Urban Development money, too, though this source has waned. And though it’s not nearly enough, Sacramento does have 2,700 existing units of permanent supportive housing with more in the pipeline, thanks to a new project for homeless and disabled veterans in Rancho Cordova that broke ground this month.
Strategies exist, too. We know what has moved the needle in other cities: Gathering good data. Treating homelessness as a public health emergency, rather than a moral issue. Housing people first, then addressing the factors that rendered them homeless, warmly and comprehensively.
Another solution would be to prioritize the most chronic and severe – and therefore most costly – cases, rather than the “most deserving.” Knowing the difference between enabling and kindness would help, too.
One big factor behind the improvement in Fresno’s numbers was Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s use of federal rental housing assistance to re-house the vulnerable after she dismantled a succession of crime-infested shantytowns.
Fresno’s case was extreme, and some of the HUD programs Swearengin exploited have since been canceled. And Sacramentans made it clear in this last election that they don’t want the sort of strong-mayor system that helped make her so effective. So given that consensus is more a prerequisite here, what can be done?
Plenty. For one, the region, particularly the business community and advocacy establishment, can get wholeheartedly behind Sacramento Steps Forward, instead of waiting in vain for new results to arise from old approaches. New Executive Director Ryan Loofbourrow has a long track record here and in San Diego, and he should be trusted to lead.
And the development of a new strategic plan on homelessness should be fast-tracked. Both the available federal funding and the experience of other cities point to the wisdom of expanding “housing first” programs with ample medical, mental health, employment and other services in Sacramento. Let’s get busy. In both human and financial terms, the numbers speak for themselves here, and they’re showing a real need for teamwork and urgency.
In coming weeks – because the City of Sacramento doesn’t even have a good handle on who its homeless are yet – Sacramento Steps Forward will begin using a high-tech assessment tool that has helped maximize resources in other cities. With it, the group hopes to leverage a $1 million city grant to start building on the success Sacramento already has had in fast-tracking veterans and the chronically homeless within the city limits into permanent supportive housing. A few hospitals and foundations have chipped in; more should get on board.
And though it spends some $2.5 million each year on motel vouchers and subsidies for emergency shelter, the county needs to expand its involvement now that the economy is rebounding. Shelters are crucial, but they’re not homes. They’re revolving doors.
It’s simply not enough to keep doing what Sacramento has tragically learned to do best – triage. The landscape itself is an indictment of the status quo: Ragged men in the alleys of midtown. Strung-out transients in the brush by the rivers. The dispossessed, trudging like ghosts to the soup line at Loaves & Fishes. Runaway kids camped by the railways.
This week, all these and more will begin filling local church basements, the result of the county’s decision years ago to stop underwriting a single large winter shelter.
Advocates are still passing the hat for the Winter Sanctuary program. As of Friday – to the frustration and disgrace of this capital city – they were only about two-thirds of the way to their modest $300,000 goal.