In midtown, a daily fight for cleanliness and safety as homelessness surges

The sidewalk outside of Mango’s restaurant on K Street is soiled and needs a power wash. A couple of blocks away, a homeless man with wild hair and dirty clothing is lingering at a patio table at a pizzeria where employees are preparing for the lunch rush. Across the street from a construction site on 21st Street where workers are climbing scaffolds, food from discarded foam containers is spilling out onto the walkway.

The problems are not urgent enough to demand police intervention. But they can be annoying and disconcerting to business owners and residents of midtown Sacramento, which is feeling the impact of the county’s growing homeless crisis.

“Our area has seen an uptick in homeless activity over the past 12 months like nothing I have seen before,” said Emily Baime Michaels, executive director of the Midtown Association, which is funded by property owners and serves businesses across the area’s commercial core. The association is responding by doubling down on its Clean and Safe program, in which workers walk the streets to scrub graffiti, pick up trash, clean up human waste, and help connect homeless people with social services and medical care.

On any given night in Sacramento County, more than 3,600 people are homeless, according to a recent census. The number is 30 percent higher than it was in 2015, and midtown and downtown are among the areas most visibly affected.

The Clean and Safe program earlier this year expanded its reach from 50 blocks to 92 blocks in response to concerns of midtown developers and business owners who were reporting a surge in problems they linked in part to the increase in homelessness.

Through June, the Midtown Association’s Clean and Safe workers have removed nearly 2,700 scrawls of graffiti, and picked up more than 100,000 pieces of litter. The program, which works with “navigators” from the nonprofit Sacramento Steps Forward for help with homeless people, made contact with 3,166 folks without permanent residences, helping to steer many of them toward housing, transportation and medical care.

“We are not a social services agency or the police,” said Baime Michaels. “We are an economic development tool, and we are looking to approach the issue of homelessness with a compassionate eye.”

Business groups in downtown, along the R Street corridor and elsewhere in the city are involved with similar efforts.

On Friday, Clean and Safe manager Luis Villa walked for miles across the midtown grid, dispatching workers for cleanups, checking in with businesses, and approaching people who appeared untethered and in need of services. Alongside him were Midtown Association staffer Avery Holland and Jazzmin Grigsby, a homeless “navigator” for Sacramento Steps Forward.

Minutes after stepping out of the association’s office on 21st Street, Villa spotted a new swirl of graffiti on a bicycle rack in front of a bank. He pulled out his cellphone, snapped a photo of it and called one of his people in the field, a contract worker from Pride Industries. The worker, Jacob Converse, said he would be on his way shortly to rub the rack clean with special chemicals. By the way, Villa said, could you pick up some trash in front of an apartment building just steps from the defaced bike rack? Sure thing, Converse replied.

“We want to be proactive,” Villa said. “We try to address things as we see them, and not just wait for calls to come in.”

When calls do come in, he said, the team tries to respond within 15 minutes or so. They are on the job Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

“They’re great,” said Zeida Martinez, a manager at Getta Clue clothing store on 20th Street. Martinez said she is sympathetic toward the plight of homeless people who frequent her block but that she has reached out to Clean and Safe on occasion for help in dealing with folks who are disruptive or blocking entryways.

“Every time we’ve called them, they come within minutes, and they handle people very well,” she said.

Grigsby and Holland, who typically carry water bottles and hygiene supplies as they bike or walk the area, were on the lookout Friday for homeless men and women who might be open to accepting services that could help put them on a path toward more stable lives.

They trolled coffee shops, parks and other areas where homeless people gather. “I like to work with them toward a plan, a goal. What do we need to get done?” said Grigsby. Sometimes, she said, an item as simple as an identification card can be a ticket toward independence. “If so, I’ll make an appointment for them and go with them to the DMV.”

In a parking lot on 21st street near Capitol Avenue, the group encountered a man packing up his battered suitcase after spending the night in a parking lot.

“What’s going on, my man?” Holland asked brightly.

“Do you have a house for me today?” he asked. “That’s all I want.” He began walking away, pulling his rolling case.

Grigsby, who knew the man by sight, told him she would catch up with him next week.

“He’s resistant, but just making contact with him is important,” she said. “Maybe next time he’ll be willing to talk with me.”

The group scoured Sutter’s Fort for potential clients, then headed to Marshall Park on 27th Street, where they found a group of three people splayed on blankets in the grass with their belongings scattered about them.

Grigsby offered them her business card. She talked to them about motel vouchers and bus passes, and offered them a list of shelters, food closets and other services in the area. She said she would be back to check on them and was willing to help them with whatever they needed.

“Well, thank you guys. Thank you for everything,” said one of the men, cradling a small plastic cup of applesauce. “I appreciate this. I don’t know what else to say. I’m lost for words right now.”

Cynthia Hubert: 916-321-1082, @Cynthia_Hubert