This man cost Sacramento County more in one year than any other homeless person

By his own admission, Pete Taneyhill was a "dirtbag" back then, living in abandoned houses, stealing to feed his drug habit and shooting methamphetamine into his veins between stints at the Sacramento County jail.

Those activities earned him a dubious spot on a list recently compiled for the county's Department of Human Assistance. He used more county services than any other homeless person in the agency's records, racking up $149,797.50 in jail, emergency response and behavioral health costs in a single year.

"What a dirtbag," Taneyhill, 53, said recently as he recalled what his life was like several years ago. "I had no idea that my addiction cost the county so much money. At the time, I wouldn't have cared."

Since then, thanks to the county's new system for tracking and offering services to its costliest and most entrenched homeless men and women, Taneyhill has a new outlook. He has a small apartment, a job and a car. He has earned his GED certificate and graduated from a counseling and training program sponsored by the probation department.

He regularly attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings. He is paying off his debts and mending shattered relationships.

"Without this help, I'd be one of those guys again, out on my bicycle with my backpack full of drug paraphernalia," he said, gesturing toward the street as he sat in the living room of his 25th Street home. "I'd be in an abandoned house, sleeping off my drug usage. I'd be selling stuff to get more drugs, getting high, ending up in jail."

The program in which Taneyhill is enrolled is one of more than $7 million in initiatives the county launched this year aimed at curbing homelessness, which a recent census suggests has increased by at least 30 percent in the area since 2015.

In a study, officials discovered that 250 homeless people cost the city and county more than $11 million in 2015-16 in jail stays, ambulance rides, emergency police response and use of behavioral services such as mental health treatment. Using a relatively new database that tracks services provided to homeless people, they identified 500 of the top users of public resources and set about trying to find them. The program's budget allows for placement of 250 people in the program, which is designed to steer clients toward housing.

Researchers did not break down costs by type of public service each client received. Taneyhill figures that most of his expenses to the county were related to stints at the jail.

It costs $126.06 per day to house an inmate at the Sacramento County Main Jail, said sheriff's spokesman Shaun Hampton. A "basic life support" ambulance ride in California costs about $600, according to a recent study. Costs of other services, such as mental health care, are widely variable, and no accurate averages are available, officials said.

Taneyhill, who has a criminal history in Sacramento dating back to 2002, was staying at a Volunteers of America shelter earlier this year when a case manager for the county program, Bobby Uppal, approached him. Taneyhill recently had been released from jail, he said, and was working toward freeing himself from drugs and changing his life.

Uppal and other case managers are key to the new project's success, said program manager Meghan Marshall. They do the detective work to track down clients, then help them get counseling, schooling, job training, driver's licenses and whatever else might be necessary to solve the complex problems that led them to the streets. They continue to work with clients even after they have found housing.

"This is a permanent commitment," Marshall said. "We have committed to supporting these clients for as long as they need us."

Not every homeless person on the county's list is jumping at the chance to participate, she said. Some homeless men and women, many who have lived outdoors for years and have serious medical and mental problems, distrust authority figures and need to be convinced that the program would improve their lives.

"It's been a slow go for some people," Marshall said. "But if we find them and they are homeless and in a critical situation, we will keep coming back even if they send us away. We'll come back 54 times if necessary." Once enrolled, clients dictate their specific needs, she said. Some are interested in drug or mental health counseling or need to sign up for Social Security or health care. Some want temporary shelter.

But the ultimate gauge of the program's success will be permanent supportive housing. Sacramento Self Help Housing is working with the county and its clients toward that end, she said.

Affordable housing is scarce in Sacramento County. But soon, 250 vouchers for subsidized housing will be available to people enrolled in the new program, said Marshall. As of the end of June, the program was full, with 250 people assigned to case managers and 15 installed in permanent housing.

"We have folks in the program who are working on getting employment and ultimately will be self-sufficient," said Marshall. "But we will keep them until they are ready" to be fully independent.

The budget for the program is $5.1 million for 18 months, through June 2019. Marshall said that based on similar programs around the country, she expects it to be a good investment for both the county and chronically homeless people.

"Because we are spending a lot of time going out and finding people, we don't expect to save money the first year," she said. "But I have no doubt that over a lifetime of a person's involvement, we would see a pretty substantial savings."

Sacramento County's program, called Flexible Supportive Re-Housing, is modeled after a similar project in Los Angeles. The RAND Corporation recently evaluated that program, called Housing for Health, for its effectiveness in improving care for clients and reducing costs to public systems.

The study found that "thousands of individuals who formerly experienced homelessness, many with complex chronic physical and mental health conditions, have been stably housed" through the program. It cited a "dramatic reduction" in use of public services for homeless people. "Overall, the cost reductions more than covered a year's worth of supportive housing costs," according to a summary of the report.

The cost of public services for people who received supportive housing declined by 60 percent, it reads.

Taneyhill was deeply in debt from unpaid court restitution and child support payments when Uppal approached him at the Volunteers of America shelter in February. The county program helped get him into housing despite those debts and his dubious background, he said.

Uppal attended his graduation from the probation department's Adult Day Reporting Center program, an intensive behavioral counseling and education program that targets felons at high risk of getting into trouble again. Uppal checks in with him regularly, acting as a sounding board and problem solver. Sometimes, they meet over lunch or in barber's chairs.

"He's had opportunities before in his life," Uppal said of Taneyhill. "But he never had this kind of full support to help him succeed. I'm confident he'll do well."

When he moved into his apartment on 25th Street adjacent to the W/X freeway about three months ago, Taneyhill "had nothing but a backpack and a bicycle," he said. He slept on the floor and commuted by bike, bus, light rail and foot to his job in Rancho Cordova for a company that "stages" model homes to prepare them for the market.

"I was broke, but I was just so grateful to be here," he said.

Now he has a paycheck, furniture and a reliable car. He bought a guitar and spends much of his free time learning to play it via YouTube videos. Taneyhill is slowly taking care of his financial responsibilities. He has reconnected with his children and other family members and friends who wanted nothing to do with him when he was an addict.

Most importantly, he said, he has sobriety.

On a table across from his sofa, Taneyhill has placed a large glass vessel that holds bath salts that just happen to look like rocks of methamphetamine. It serves as a daily reminder of a place he never wants to revisit.

He began using the drug when he was in high school in the Santa Rosa area, he said.. His eyes filled with tears as he tallied the costs of his addiction.

"I caused a lot of pain," he said. "But now I have so many people around me who trust me and care about me. Considering where I was a short time ago, my life is amazing."

Related stories from Sacramento Bee