Sacramento officials could let homeless people skip the line for housing vouchers

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg wants to divert 1,600 federal housing vouchers to homeless people, letting them jump the line on a list of disabled, elderly and low-income residents who have waited years for a chance at one of the coveted subsidies.

“We have to make some choices,” Steinberg said. “The people on waiting lists are in need, but they are housed. The people who are on the streets are in the most desperate conditions.”

An estimated 70,000 applicants are on wait lists in Sacramento County for about 910 spots that open up each year, between vouchers and public housing units. For the next two years, Steinberg wants the majority of those housing opportunities – about 800 annually – to go to homeless people.

The plan comes as local leaders are moving aggressively to reduce homelessness across the Sacramento region. The wet winter has led to flooding of many popular homeless sites along the American River, and homeless people have increasingly moved into suburban areas in recent years, prompting residents to demand action.

In 2015, the most recent year for which figures are available, a one-night count of homeless in Sacramento County found about 2,650 people on the street, with 948 having no shelter. The count estimated more than 5,200 people experienced homelessness during that year. An updated one-night tally will take place Wednesday night.

“It’s an essential idea,” Steinberg said. “We don’t have enough permanent housing to house the homeless, and if we are serious about beginning to make a major change on this issue, which is getting worse, we must start with committing to permanent housing.”

The county began discussing Steinberg’s idea at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. Supervisors instructed the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency to reach those on the list and affordable housing advocates, and report back in March.

Speaking at the meeting, community activist Tamie Dramer called it a “Sophie’s choice.”

“Getting homeless folks directly into housing with vouchers or, you know, just prioritizing them and pushing people down the list. That’s pretty rough because there’s been a lot of people on that list for a long, long time,” she said.

Supervisors asked many questions about the plan but gave few opinions, through Supervisor Phil Serna expressed support earlier in the week.

Supervisor Don Nottoli said after the meeting that he’s willing to consider the full range of options regarding vouchers, but he’s also concerned about people on the wait lists at risk of becoming homeless.

“I haven’t arrived at any particular conclusion on that,” he said.

Priority for the federal voucher money now goes to people who live or work in Sacramento County, are disabled, have a veteran in the household or pay more than 50 percent of income on rent and utilities, according to the SHRA, which oversees the voucher program.

Recipients must find landlords willing to accept the subsidies, sometimes with help from nonprofits – a challenge in Sacramento’s housing market. SHRA Executive Director LaShelle Dozier said the rental market is so hot, it’s taking an average of five months for voucher recipients to find a unit. The program pays $870 a month for a one-bedroom, and up to $1,935 for a four-bedroom, but does not cover associated costs such as deposits or application fees. Recipients also must pass landlord screenings.

With inventory tight, housing advocates question whether landlords will accept the troubled tenants Steinberg wants to prioritize for vouchers.

SHRA reported that 65 percent of people on the lists are disabled and 27 percent are elderly. Twenty-nine percent are families with children, and 52 percent are single. Twenty-seven percent have an annual income below $10,000.

Those in multiple categories get top priority. Dozier said many on the voucher list wait up to three years, and up to 35 percent are homeless when a voucher becomes available.

“But for the housing that we are already providing, these individuals are the ones that would fall into homelessness,” Dozier said.

A county staff report said the change would have an “unknown impact” on those already on the wait list. Under federal regulations, no one would be dropped from the list and everyone would have the opportunity to self-identify as homeless, said SHRA spokeswoman Angela Jones. The change would require federal approval.

Steinberg said he understands concern over the fate of people waiting for vouchers, but he doesn’t think the wait lists are “sacrosanct.”

Steinberg’s “housing first” approach, adopted by many cities and promoted by the federal government, puts people in permanent shelter immediately instead of requiring them to first go through counseling or addiction programs. He would, however, provide those services to those using vouchers.

County Director of Homeless Initiatives Cindy Cavanaugh on Tuesday proposed a new Flexible Supportive Rehousing Program with a “whatever-it-takes” approach for homeless people who do not qualify for federal vouchers because they are undocumented immigrants, have problems with the application process or have a criminal record.

Like Steinberg, she said that hard-to-reach homeless people may need outreach workers trained at helping resistant populations.

“Flexibility would be key,” Cavanaugh said. “Then you can meet the person’s needs where they are.”

She said another housing option would likely be necessary. In Los Angeles County, which operates a similar program, 30 percent of participants don’t qualify under federal rules.

Based on Los Angeles’ costs, Cavanaugh estimated services would cost $7,800 a year per each hard case individual, not including housing subsidies and administrative costs. For 300 people, the program would cost about $2.34 million a year for services alone.

The Board of Supervisors and City Council could take action on Steinberg’s plan at a Jan. 31 joint meeting. Shifting the vouchers to homeless people could take months, if approved. Dozier said her agency usually submits its annual proposal to the federal government in the fall.

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa

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