Faces of the homeless and a poem: a video essay
As the county and the city of Sacramento seek to revamp homeless services, officials have started to cut funding for an agency that was created the last time they made a concerted effort to change their approach to homelessness.
Then-Mayor Kevin Johnson and other officials created the nonprofit agency Sacramento Steps Forward in 2009, the same year the Oprah Winfrey Show featured a tent city that had sprung up in Sacramento, drawing national attention to a longstanding local problem.
The idea behind Sacramento Steps Forward was that, as a nonprofit agency, it could raise funding from the private sector as well as government agencies, and it would seek to find permanent housing for homeless people instead of relying on shelters. The agency hired a team of “navigators” who would seek out the homeless and help them with social services and housing.
The agency has raised private funds, but most of its funding comes from the county, city and the federal government. The agency’s budget for this year is $18 million, three-fourths of it from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It passes most of that money along to other agencies that serve the homeless, including Volunteers of America and Lutheran Social Services.
The agency could end up losing about $4 million of its funding next year, based on decisions from its three biggest sources. The cuts would mean the loss of four of the agency’s navigators, but the biggest impact would be on Volunteers of America for two housing programs run out of the former Mather Air Force Base.
The city of Sacramento last week approved a midyear cut of $140,000 in the budget of Sacramento Steps Forward because it had housing dollars left unspent. The city plans to use the money for a homeless referral system run by another agency. Sacramento Steps Forward CEO Ryan Loofbourrow said the money was not spent during the start of a new program.
The week before the city’s decision, Sacramento County supervisors discussed a proposed $1.2 million cut in Sacramento Steps Forward funding. While the decision will not be made for a few months, board members did not indicate any opposition. Most of that funding was for a housing program run by Volunteers of America, while the rest paid for navigators, Loofbourrow said.
Like the city, the county plans to redirect funds from Sacramento Steps Forward to another service, in this case to run a new homeless shelter. The county is still working on the proposal for the shelter, which would hold up to 300 people.
Finally, Sacramento Steps Forward can expect a $2.5 million shortfall in its budget next year because it did not ask HUD to renew a grant for housing at the former Mather Air Force Base. The agency decided against making the request because HUD has been discouraging transitional housing like what’s provided at Mather, officials said, adding that they are seeking other sources to pay for the 211 housing units there.
Some officials have specific complaints about Sacramento Steps Forward. But proposed and approved funding cuts also reflect their desire to find something new to address homelessness.
“I don’t have any allegiance to a particular agency,” said Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna, whose district contains some of the heaviest concentrations of homelessness. “I’m looking for what works.”
The city and county discussed Sacramento Steps Forward funding last month as they considered larger plans about how to improve homeless services. The broader discussions are the result of growing frustration by residents over homeless campers along the American River Parkway and elsewhere, plus pressure from advocates who say it’s unconscionable that so many people lack shelter. Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg has also made reducing homelessness a priority. Steinberg has pitched the idea of using HUD housing vouchers to reduce homelessness.
Since Sacramento Steps Forward incorporated in 2011, the county’s homeless population has grown from 2,358 to 2,659 in 2015, the last year officials completed one of the “point in time” surveys done to measure homelessness nationwide. The results of the most recent survey, in January, have not yet been released.
Loofbourrow said a difficult housing market with high rents and low vacancies has been the biggest obstacle to reducing homelessness. At the same time, he said, the agency is working closely with the city and county to improve its services.
City of Sacramento homeless coordinator Emily Halcon also bemoaned the lack of housing in a recent City Council discussion on homeless services. “Our system is currently overwhelmed and perhaps pushed past its capacity,” she said.
But some officials point to problems with the approach pursued by Sacramento Steps Forward itself. Serna said he doesn’t think the navigators do enough to get the homeless into social services and make sure they stick in the programs. He said his impression is based in part on spending a half day with one of the navigators.
Supervisor Patrick Kennedy also finds fault with the agency, saying it has emphasized caseworkers when it should make social services a priority. “The problem has been that their model is based on the navigator system,” he said. “In a sense, it’s been a navigation to nowhere. We are putting the cart before the horse.”
Loofbourrow agrees that Sacramento County could use more services to help the homeless, particularly in the area of drug and alcohol treatment. He also thinks the navigators have been called upon to do more than originally intended, which was simply to find homeless people and introduce them to service agencies. Instead, they’ve been asked to become full-blown caseworkers.
Still, he said the navigators have accomplished a great deal. Last year, they helped 700 people get mental health services, 170 get drug and alcohol treatment, and 690 people to get public benefits such as cash payments from the county and the federal government.