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Deal with it: Our homeless problem will surely persist if we don’t do anything

Learn about the proposed homeless shelter site near Curtis Park

A grassy lot near Highway 99 between X Street and Broadway in Sacramento could be the next site for a large city-run homeless shelter under a proposal by Councilman Jay Schenirer in March 2019.
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A grassy lot near Highway 99 between X Street and Broadway in Sacramento could be the next site for a large city-run homeless shelter under a proposal by Councilman Jay Schenirer in March 2019.

Homelessness is not as pronounced or overwhelming in Sacramento as it is in Seattle, San Francisco, Berkeley and Los Angeles. But it could be in a few years.

If we don’t act now to bend the curve, to get more people off the streets and into housing, we could one day look back and bemoan when Sacramento hit its proverbial tipping point on homelessness – when the crisis became too big to mitigate in any meaningful way.

People in north Sacramento could argue that their section of town is already at that point and they would be justified in being outraged. The explosion of homeless campers on the lower stretch of the American River Parkway, Sacramento’s beautiful urban forest and riverfront, has created Third World conditions in our midst.

Despite complaints he hears every day from citizens experiencing unwanted contact with homeless people, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg thinks Sacramento still has time to turn the homeless problem around if we act boldly right now.

Frankly, this call to action is the strongest argument supporting Steinberg’s passionate plea to increase the amount of money – already in the millions and climbing – to commit to the homeless crisis.

Opinion

Steinberg is proposing a big number, $40 million over the next two years, with $16 million of that coming from Measure U, the sales tax increase approved by Sacramento voters.

The mayor has opposition. Some think that’s way too much money and that more Measure U funds should go to police, fire and parks. Some, such as Councilman Larry Carr, think that Sacramento’s homeless effort needs to be smaller in scale because of Sacramento’s lack of permanent housing where homeless people can be moved.

Carr, who represents Meadowview, also believes that Steinberg’s plan to erect homeless shelters in every council district in town will invariably place homeless shelters in poor neighborhoods while affluent neighborhoods are spared.

Carr is not wrong for feeling this way. Less affluent neighborhoods in north Sacramento and the River District surrounding Richards Boulevard already have been affected by Sacramento’s homeless crisis.

And Carr is also not wrong for shaking his head at the cost to move people from the streets and into housing. For roughly 15 months, the city has paid $400,000 a month to maintain a homeless shelter on Railroad Drive. (That figure covers all city costs including lease payments, upkeep and police services.)

In that time, a little less than 200 people have been moved from the streets to some form of housing.

Do the math: $400,000 a month for 15 months is $6 million. Placing 200 hundred people into housing essentially means the cost of moving people from the street to under a roof has been $30,000 per person.

Yes, that’s mind boggling.

But so is this: A 2015 city report calculated that Sacramento was spending $13.6 million a year just to respond to police and fire calls related to homelessness. And that doesn’t even count the more than $10 million the county of Sacramento spends to mitigate the effects of homelessness each year. Last summer, The Sacramento Bee profiled Peter Tanneyhill, a self-described “dirtbag,” whose methamphetamine use cost the county dearly.

“He used more county services than any other homeless person in the agency’s records, racking up $149,797.50 in jail, emergency response and behavioral health costs in a single year,” we reported.

Do you get it? The cost of doing something about homelessness is insane. The cost of doing nothing about homelessness is even more insane. Because doing nothing means spending millions just to clean up the mess, move people along, move them in and out of jail, emergency rooms, river beds, doorways, alleys.

Why not just enforce the law and arrest people? That’s certainly a popular opinion among a certain demographic. Last week, KOMO-TV – a Seattle news station – released “Seattle is Dying,” an incendiary hour-long documentary, which has already been viewed a couple of hundred thousand times. It is an example of how not to think about the problem.

It shows Seattle as a deeply divided place where people argued and fought over the symptoms of homelessness while the issue hit a tipping point that Steinberg thinks Sacramento can avoid.

Seattle had its own Measure U tax, called a Head Tax, on large employers that was meant for homeless services. But Amazon objected even though Amazon is one of the richest companies in the world. The Head Tax was repealed shortly after being enacted.

What does the KOMO documentary recommend to deal with homelessness? It touted a Rhode Island program where people are incarcerated and take methadone while getting job training.

Eureka! Problem solved, Mayor Steinberg! Prepare a fleet of city buses bound for Rhode Island, stat! Honestly, by the end of this “documentary” I was laughing out loud at its pearl-clutching tone. Law enforcement leaders agree that cities cannot arrest their way out of homelessness. California is already under federal court order to decrease its prison population.

The federal 9th Circuit Court Appeals has ruled unconstitutional outlawing people sleeping in public places if they have nowhere to go. The court also blocked a San Diego ordinance that attempted to outlaw people sleeping in cars.

Apparently, the producers at KOMO, which is owned by Sinclair Broadcasting, were unaware of this. These court rulings have made all but impossible moving people off the American River Parkway.

Clearly Seattle’s homeless problem – even worse than Sacramento’s – had become a crisis while civic and business leaders fought with each other.

“A 2018 audit found Seattle’s homeless response to be flawed because of a lack of coordination between cities, the county, housing authorities, and service providers,” wrote Geek Wire, a Seattle based-publication that covers its tech industry.

“All Home, the agency created to oversee the Seattle region’s homeless response, ‘lacks the authority to unify local funders into an efficient and nimble crisis response system,’” it reported, quoting the audit.

Which brings us back to Steinberg. More than any other elected official, he is acutely aware of the social and political challenges involved in the homeless effort.

He understands what Carr is saying – that Sacramento doesn’t have the capacity to house everyone right now. But Steinberg is calculating that the city can’t wait. That’s why he is pushing for each council person in all eight city council districts to come up with places where homeless people can be housed.

The hope is that if all eight council districts had 100 beds for homeless, the city could start moving hundreds of people into housing each year and that momentum would create demand for more housing stock to be created in Sacramento.

Steinberg’s close friend and right-hand man on the homeless front – councilman Jay Schenirer – just last week took the bold step of proposing a homeless shelter near the lovely Curtis Park neighborhood. Why was this significant?

Because every other homeless shelter proposed for Sacramento has been recommended for a struggling neighborhood.

If Steinberg gets his way, Sacramento will have money for two years to attack homelessness. Where will the money come from after that? We don’t know. But we should know a few things: Cities that fight and argue over the symptoms of homelessness are destined to be stuck with them.

Steinberg is trying to create another model and another outcome for Sacramento. Schenirer is trying to answer critics – like me – who wonder why all the homeless shelters go in poor in neighborhoods. Schenirer says the next shelters should cost far less than the one on Railroad Drive, because the lease payments should be far lower.

Is all of this still scary and fraught with unanswered questions? Yes. “Are there better solutions out there?” Schenirer asked me.

I didn’t have an answer. Not having an answer means Steinberg and Schenirer have the best ideas on how to combat homelessness in Sacramento, unless someone can articulate better ones.

Doing nothing or going small is not an option. If we can avoid the fate of Seattle, we need to try.

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Marcos Breton writes commentary and opinion columns about the Sacramento region, California and the United States. He’s been a California newspaperman for more than 30 years. He’s a graduate of San Jose State University, a voter for the Baseball Hall of Fame and the proud son of Mexican immigrants.


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