Churches could become year-round homeless shelters under Sacramento mayor’s plan

Tiny house for homeless people better than 'bushes, underpasses'

Councilman Jeff Harris says a small, prefabricated unit could house homeless people in Sacramento. The unit was on display Monday near City Hall. "We don't need much," Tammy Culver, a homeless woman, said while touring the unit.
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Councilman Jeff Harris says a small, prefabricated unit could house homeless people in Sacramento. The unit was on display Monday near City Hall. "We don't need much," Tammy Culver, a homeless woman, said while touring the unit.

Churches could serve as year-round homeless shelters under a new proposal from Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg.

Steinberg’s plan would allow churches and community-based organizations to temporarily house up to 20 people each in neighborhoods throughout the city.

The mayor, who has prioritized reducing homelessness, said Tuesday he has been working with Loaves & Fishes on the idea, which would require a change in city ordinances. Steinberg asked the city to come back within a month with those changes.

Steinberg has repeatedly said he wants to focus city resources on permanent housing and wants to give some homeless people priority for federal housing vouchers ahead of people who have long been on waiting lists. But he shifted this week when he said he also sees a need for more temporary shelter after city- and county-run warming centers closed in recent weeks as temperatures have risen.

“There is still this daily issue of emergency shelter and we don’t have nearly enough of it,” Steinberg said. “The homeless problem continues to not only concern me but in many respects in the eyes of many of city residents, it’s getting worse.”

Steinberg said he would consider backing the faith-based shelters with city money, as well as redirecting services to support them, though most homeless services fall under county control.

Homeless advocate Bob Erlenbusch said he supported the micro-shelter idea but was uncertain how many congregations would take part.

“That’s a heavy lift,” he said. Erlenbusch thought “a handful of the wealthiest churches” might participate, but it could be “unrealistic” on a wider scale.

Joan Burke, advocacy director of Loaves & Fishes, said if the micro-shelter plan is adopted by the city, her organization would reach out to faith organizations it already works with. She said the sites would likely be “simple emergency shelters” and each congregation would choose what, if anything, to offer beyond beds.

Steinberg said many churches are already running “underground” shelters and that “to bring it above ground allows us to insist on health, safety and quality.”

St. Francis of Assisi Parish in midtown is one church that has been running an unofficial program since 2004, said church director of outreach Richard Hernandez.

Each night, the parish allows 16 homeless people to sleep in its courtyard. Church members volunteer in the evenings and mornings, but Hernandez said the program works in part because the church is aware of its limitations.

“We’ve attempted to keep it at a very simple way of doing things,” Hernandez said. “It’s all done by humans with the intention of just providing a safe space for people.”

Hernandez said the program tries to be “as invisible as possible,” and is careful not to have a negative impact on neighbors.

“We have to make sure that the people in the neighborhood, we are sensitive to them so that people aren’t leaving trash or coming at all hours.”

But Hernandez said there have been challenges, from behavior of guests to bad weather.

“It can be very complicated,” he said. “We don’t transfer (the guests’) issues on to us. We don’t allow our people to take them home to dinner. It has to be just what it is here and nothing more.”

Lutheran Church of the Master in South Land Park is another church that allowed homeless people to sleep on its grounds.

A church member who asked not to be named said that the church has previously allowed up to three homeless people to sleep outside on its property during the past year. But it received complaints from neighbors and found that the homeless people presented behavioral challenges that the congregation wasn’t prepared to handle.

“We want to reach out in Christ’s love to those who need help but it’s difficult to figure out if we are helping and it’s also problematic to balance the safety and fears of the local neighborhood,” said the church member.

Steinberg said supporting churches such as Lutheran Church of the Master and St. Francis would be part of any church-shelter program the city signs off on.

“This is where the city comes in, this is where the county comes in, this is where the nonprofit programmers come in,” said Steinberg. “They’re doing the best they can, but there’s no service component tied to it.”

Council members Tuesday also heard more about a proposal for a homeless tent city in the North Sacramento area. But that plan hit a roadblock when a problem arose with its suggested site near Johnston Park south of Strawberry Manor.

The city had tentatively approved using land near a baseball diamond there for an encampment that would serve up to 200 people for a four-month pilot program. The city Tuesday discovered a nearby facility that serves abuse victims and put the plan on hold while it determined if the site posed any risks for that facility.

Councilman Allen Warren, who is spearheading the effort, said Wednesday he will return to council in the next two weeks and expects the location issue to be resolved.

A man was found lying dead in front of Sacramento's old City Hall early Wednesday morning -- the second such death in a week that has figured rain, wind and low nighttime temperatures.

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa

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