Sacramento moves ahead on public housing for homeless, but county wants more time

Six hours long and at times unruly, Tuesday night’s city-county joint meeting on homelessness ended minutes before midnight with a victory and a rebuke for Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg.

For weeks, Steinberg has worked in public and behind the scenes to give public housing units and monthly federal rent vouchers to homeless people for two years. While the city directly controls a few public housing slots, the vouchers belong to the county and are administered through the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency.

Steinberg needs county cooperation to accomplish his plan, but received only cautious support from the Board of Supervisors during Tuesday’s meeting without any commitment.

Minutes before midnight, the City Council voted unanimously to have SHRA begin the process of reallocating 200 public housing units to the homeless. The City Council also asked supervisors to move 1,600 vouchers they control down the same path.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed to have county staff investigate Steinberg’s idea – along with more than half a dozen other proposals – and report back in March. The vague language of the county resolution was a contrast to the hard numbers in the corresponding city version.

After the votes and throughout the meeting, Steinberg pressed for supervisors to include the city in another joint meeting on homelessness when they discuss the March staff reports so he and other council members can weigh in.

“We want to be involved here and we’re going to insist on being involved because ... we have a real interest in this outcome,” Steinberg said.

The supervisors demurred. They declined to commit to including the city when they next consider the voucher issue.

County CEO Nav Gill told gathered officials that county staff intend to investigate a myriad of possible homeless programs along with the voucher idea, including providing fewer vouchers to the homeless. His staff is expected to present its findings March 21.

“I don’t want this body to kind of fixate on just one number and that’s all we talk about,” he said. He said county staff had a “comprehensive” collection of proposals “that we’ve been working on for a while.”

The closest Steinberg came to ensuring the city would have a say in deciding the fate of the vouchers was a suggestion from Supervisor Don Nottoli to save March 28 as a date when the two bodies could come together again, a week after the board reviews various homeless options.

Steinberg also suggested that the two bodies meet again to discuss a possible grant from Sutter Health to pay for counseling and medical services for homeless people who receive housing subsidies. Supervisor Phil Serna said that the city and county could work on a grant application separately as long as their staffs coordinate.

“We don’t have to hold hands on that,” Supervisor Susan Peters said.

Steinberg’s critics weren’t only on the county dais. More than 70 in the overflow crowd spoke at the podium to pick apart his idea and discuss the issue of homelessness in general.

Many speakers lauded the mayor for moving urgently, but questioned who would fund services and whether enough affordable housing exists in Sacramento for voucher recipients.

Joan Burke, director of advocacy at Loaves & Fishes, said she thinks the voucher plan is a sensible idea, but expressed reservations that the plan would bump people already on the waiting list for public housing, potentially pushing them into homelessness. The list currently favors the elderly, disabled and veterans, among others.

“You need to dedicate resources that are commensurate to the size of the problem,” she said. “Creating a homeless priority for the housing choice vouchers doesn’t increase the size of the pie; it just slices it differently.”

Councilwoman Angelique Ashby was especially concerned about single-parent families losing their place in the queue.

“Will there be moms and kids on that list who get moved down because they don’t mark ‘I’m homeless right this moment,’ even if they’re living in a hotel or car or a friend’s garage or whatever?” she asked.

Steinberg assured his colleagues that the list would be flexible enough to ensure those situations don’t occur.

Among the last speakers, 18-year-old Carolina Queener came to the podium with a personal plea.

She said she had been homeless in the past year, but managed to graduate from El Camino Fundamental High School. She stays with a friend now, but the family is moving to Rocklin in two weeks and she has no place to go. Her mother is living in a car. Her brother stays with a friend.

Steinberg told a staff member to get Queener’s contact. She didn’t want to go to a shelter, and she didn’t want to leave her dog, Mocha. Steinberg said there were options.

With Queener distressed and crying, the county clerk brought her tissues. But neither the council nor board had an answer that night.

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa

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