Ted Rash spent about a year in a north Sacramento homeless shelter, but now finds himself again sleeping in a tent.
On April 30, as the only city-run homeless shelter prepared to close its doors, Rash sat on the curb, his Rhodesian Ridgeback named Freya by his side. After months of relative stability, he was trying to figure out where to set up camp.
“I’m just gonna tough it out until I can find a place,” said Rash, 31. “I’m hoping a miracle happens, like I get a phone call for housing.”
Rash was one of 394 people who spent time at the shelter on Railroad Drive, but went back to living on the streets, according to city figures. The shelter’s main purpose during its 17 months of operation was to get the city’s chronically homeless off the streets and riverbanks, connect them with resources and get them housed. To reach the traditionally unreachable, people were allowed to bring their pets, partners and possessions, and weren’t turned away for having drugs and alcohol in their systems. No shelter like it had ever been opened in the city.
While most of the men and women who spent time at the shelter returned to homelessness, many were placed in housing. Of the 658 people who rotated through Railroad Drive, 164 landed in permanent housing, according to data from the city. Another 100 were placed in temporary housing – including other shelters and board and care facilities – while the rest are either back on the streets or their location is unknown.
The city paid more than $5 million in city and private funds to run the Railroad Drive shelter, according to Emily Halcon, the city’s homeless services coordinator. That’s more than $30,000 per permanently housed person, or more than $18,000 for every person placed into permanent or temporary housing.
Residents returned to the streets for a variety of reasons. Some, like Rash, couldn’t get the state ID cards, social security cards and birth certificates required to get housing before the shelter closed. Some refused to give up their dogs and officials couldn’t find housing that allowed pets. Many received Section 8 housing vouchers while in the shelter, but couldn’t find anywhere to accept them.
The Railroad Drive shelter offers lessons for the city as it seeks to expand its shelter system.
The city plans to open four new large shelters modeled after Railroad Drive this year and next. Mayor Darrell Steinberg wants to move shelter residents into housing an average of every four months in order to fulfill his pledge to get 2,000 people off the streets by the end of 2020. If residents of the Railroad Drive shelter were transitioned into housing every four months, the shelter could have housed roughly 700 people.
Steinberg stands by his goal to get 2,000 people off the streets by next year, though he acknowledges it’s extremely ambitious. He believes shelters like Railroad Drive, with improvements, are the best way to get there.
“It may take longer than 2020,” Steinberg said. “But I said from the very beginning, if we don’t have an aspiration, if we don’t set stretch goals, we’ll never even come close. And this is a more positive and impactful result than we have ever had with anything else that we have ever tried.”
City officials are working on tweaks to the model in the hopes of getting more shelter residents housed, Halcon said.
Halcon plans to include a “rehousing fund” of up to $40,000 a month for each new shelter. That money could be used to provide the homeless with double deposits on housing, to reserve housing units while shelter residents get paperwork together and for service providers to “pound the pavement” to find new landlords to accept formerly homeless tenants, Halcon said.
“We need to make housing not only a focus, but say, ‘Here’s resources and money and staff,’ and not just wish them luck on getting people in line,” Halcon said.
Halcon said she also hopes to add more housing organizations to work with shelter guests, including those that specialize in finding non-subsidized housing. Sacramento Self Help Housing and Sacramento Covered, two of the main organizations housing people at Railroad Drive, focused mostly on subsidized housing.
The shelter was more successful at housing people than other facilities in the county, Halcon said. Shelters in Sacramento County that report data to the Homeless Management Information System permanently housed an average of 21 percent of shelter guests in 2018, compared to 25 percent at the city’s facility, Halcon said. In future shelters, Halcon would like to aim for half of the guests to get permanent housing, she said.
“I can confidently say that as compared to our existing shelter system, we did just as good, if not better, and we served a population that was more difficult to serve,” Halcon said.
Of the 658 people who stayed at the shelter, 86 percent reported they had a disabling condition, 60 percent had a mental health illness and 46 percent had a substance abuse issue, according to city data.
An expensive model
Council members Angelique Ashby, Larry Carr and Allen Warren have raised concerns about the cost of city shelters.
“I appreciate the mayor and the other members of the council being proactive, but the Railroad model, in my opinion, was far too expensive for the minimal results realized,” Ashby said. “Much was learned and it will be important that we heed those lessons as we move forward. There are no shortcuts to the complicated problems that the unhoused face.”
Steinberg argued that if the 264 people placed into housing had remained homeless, the public cost would have been even higher.
In 2015, a city report found Sacramento spent $13.6 million in a single year to deal with the effects of homelessness, including $2 million by the police department and $5 million by the fire department, which frequently responds to medical calls and fires at riverfront encampments.
The fire department also responded to more than 500 calls for service at the Railroad Drive shelter, many for seizures, drug overdoses and shortness of breath, said Roberto Padilla, a firefighter union spokesman.
“It’s a concern to us that it hasn’t been acknowledged that the shelters generate this type of call volume,” Padilla said. “There’s this thought that by putting people in shelters and providing them services, they will no longer burden the 911 system. It couldn’t be further from the truth.”
The union is asking for increased fire department funding from new Measure U sales tax revenue. Nearly $16 million in existing Measure U reserves is set to go toward opening new shelters.
Councilman Rick Jennings said he wants the city to push for more permanent housing as it opens additional shelters so people will have places to go after leaving.
“I think we need to get started now on the permanent supportive housing and we need to work as a council to move in that direction,” Jennings said during a February council meeting.
Steinberg said he believes the city first needs to shelter the thousands living outside in unsafe and dangerous conditions.
“I believe the pendulum over the years has swung too far to emphasizing only longer-term and permanent housing ... and has de-emphasized the imperative of getting people off the streets immediately,” Steinberg said.
The city can do both, though, and should use new Measure U sales tax revenue to create a fund to build more affordable housing, Steinberg said.
An affordable housing trust fund, containing city money matched with state and private dollars, would be available for private developers and nonprofits to create more affordable and workforce housing, Steinberg said.
The next shelter expected to open, at the Capitol Park Hotel downtown, is a good model because it will be redeveloped into permanent housing with on-site services after it is used for an up to 180-bed shelter for 18 months, Steinberg said.
“That’s the sweet spot, in a way,” Steinberg said.
That shelter will cost more than $23 million, though the city will be reimbursed $13 million from Mercy Housing when the shelter closes. More than 90 elderly and disabled people now living in the residential hotel will need to move, and will be given relocation services.
The second shelter the city is planning to open, a tent-like structure erected on Cal Expo property near Ethan and Hurley ways, will cost less, about $9.4 million. That includes about $3.8 million for design and construction and about $5.2 million for operations. The city offered to pay $19,500 per year to Cal Expo for the lot — much lower than the roughly $40,000 monthly lease it paid for Railroad. The shelter requires Cal Expo approval.
Another shelter could open in the months ahead. If Caltrans agrees, the city could pay $1 a year to rent a lot the agency owns. The city plans to open a 100-bed tent-like structure at the corner of X Street and Alhambra Boulevard, but still needs state approval. A bill in the state Legislature would make it easier for Caltrans to rent lots to municipalities for homeless shelters, which has been done in San Francisco.
The city plans to spend roughly $11.5 million in state and private funds Steinberg is raising to open both the X Street shelter and another up to 200-bed tent-like shelter in an unannounced location in south Sacramento.
Steinberg is still asking Warren, Jennings and Councilman Eric Guerra to propose sites for 100 beds in each of their districts to bring the city to 800 new shelter beds. Ashby is proposing 100 beds for women and children in homes scattered around Natomas. A 12-bed shelter for LGBTQ youth is opening in Councilman Steve Hansen’s midtown district.
If all 800 beds are available, and those shelters permanently or temporarily house residents at the same rate as Railroad Drive, the city could reach Steinberg’s goal.
“It is a realistic goal,” Steinberg said. “As we begin multiplying this approach and learning lessons from our first try, can we go from 264 to 2,000? Yes, I believe we can.”
‘A paperwork nightmare’
While staying at the Railroad Drive shelter, Rash made big strides. With help from Elica Health Centers officials, Rash was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression — a reason he hadn’t been able to hold down a long-term job — and received a prescription to help.
“I don’t stress out anymore, I don’t get angry anymore,” Rash said. “It really took a weight off my shoulders.”
At the shelter, Rash also got paperwork to classify Freya as an emotional support animal, which means he should be able to bring her into housing, even if his new home does not normally allow pets. He also made close friends — the kind he says are hard to find on the streets. He sat at a picnic table outside the shelter in late April giving Freya a belly rub. Another shelter guest walking by stopped to give Freya a head pat.
“In here, it kinda became like a gigantic family, whereas out there, it’s kinda like an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” Rash said.
Rash spent more than a year at the shelter, with a couple breaks, but still doesn’t have housing. Organization staffers found Rash an apartment in Rancho Cordova and he was set to move in. He was waiting for one last document – his birth certificate – to arrive in the mail. It didn’t come before the shelter closed.
He could have gone to another shelter, but would have had to give up his dog, he said.
“I can’t do that,” Rash said. “She’s like my child. She’s my best friend.”
Rash has been homeless on and off since he was 13, and his year at Railroad Drive was the longest he had been in one place since then, he said. He can make it on the streets, but he’s eager to get housing because it will help him find a job and help him get custody of his 8-month-old daughter Lindsey.
“Nothing will stop me from getting that little girl,” Rash said.
Since April 30, Rash has been sleeping in a tent waiting for his birth certificate to arrive at a Volunteers of America office — the nonprofit the city paid to operate the shelter. After it comes, officials will continue to help him find housing, he said. He has a federal housing voucher now, and has been making a lot of calls, but hasn’t been able to find a landlord to accept it.
There is little the city can do to speed up the paperwork process for many homeless who are trying to get into housing subsidized by the federal government. Those units come with requirements, such as proving a person has been homeless for a year or had four homeless episodes in three years, Halcon said.
“They have to recreate their whole life story,” Halcon said. “It becomes this paperwork nightmare.”
Adding pets to the equation adds another layer of difficulty.
‘One of the hardest challenges of all’
For Debbie Scheible, getting rid of her dog Patrice was not an option. She adopted the Pit Bull mix six years ago, and named her after her deceased son, Patrick.
“She’s got me through hell,” Scheible said. “She’s very protective.”
Scheible, 63, walks with a severe limp, the result of domestic violence and a bad car accident in 1990. After losing her house in north Sacramento, she said she slept in a tent in her own driveway before coming to the shelter.
With about a week left until the shelter closed, Scheible was panicked.
She sat on the edge of a bottom bunk in the warehouse — the only occupied cot left in her pod — with Patrice sleeping in a crate next to her. She mixed a cup of hot chocolate while sifting through a Ziploc bag of coins trying to collect enough to buy a pack of cigarettes.
“I’m at my wit’s end, I mean, I can’t go out there. I’d rather die,” Scheible said. “I’m too old. I can barely walk. If someone came after me, I couldn’t even get away, you know?”
On the shelter’s last day, Scheible woke up crying and vomiting. After about eight months in the shelter, she thought she would be forced to decide between living on the streets or giving up Patrice.
Later in the day, Scheible got word from Sacramento Covered that she could bring her dog to her new home — a tidy single-family house in south Sacramento with a fenced-in backyard and nice landscaping. But it’s only temporary. Scheible and her housemates do not know how long they will be able to stay. They could end up on the streets again.
The Railroad Drive shelter was the only large shelter in the city that allowed guests to bring their pets. The Capitol Park Hotel shelter, set to open in July, might not allow pets, Hansen has said. If not, there will not be another large shelter in the city allowing pets until November, when the Cal Expo shelter plans to open.
The new city “rehousing fund” could also include money to help people with pets like Scheible get housed faster, Halcon said. The money could be used to pay pet deposits, repairing units damaged by animals and other costs aimed at persuading landlords to accept residents with pets.
“It is difficult to say, ‘Take this person who has no real rental history and their four dogs,’” Halcon said. “That’s a hard ask. But we also can’t expect that person to abandon their pets.”
At one point, Railroad Drive housed 200 people and more than 100 dogs — a testament to the need for a shelter that allows pets in Sacramento, Halcon said.
After Alta “Gabby” Mack was told to leave the shelter in early April for breaking a shelter rule, an organization offered her a temporary shelter. However, she would have had to give up her three dogs.
“I shouldn’t have to do that,” said Mack, who stayed in the shelter for about eight months. “I’m not willing to give up one of my dogs. Not one.”
Mack has been sleeping in a tent near the shelter ever since. On April 30, she rocked a sleeping chihuahua and watched as the last guests trickled out of the shelter.
“I’m 55 and I don’t know if I can make it out here,” Mack said. “It’s hard. It’s really hard.”