5 things you’re wrong about when it comes to homelessness in Sacramento County

Homelessness is up at least 19 percent in Sacramento County – 5,570 homeless people are living in shelters, in cars, on sidewalks.

It’s an issue that sparks protests, emotional pleas and vigorous (and sometimes hostile) debate. It also is an area rife with misinformation.

This year’s federally mandated point-in-time count offers new insights about homelessness here: Who are they? Where do they live? What do they need?

The census count is not an exact measurement of the scope of homelessness, relying heavily on self-reported data and facing frequent criticism that it significantly undercounts. But researchers say the analysis — which includes interviews from about 550 individuals — is one of the most rigorous surveys the county has for painting a clear picture.

Here are five common myths about homelessness in Sacramento County, debunked:

Myth: Most homeless people in Sacramento County are out-of-towners

The reality is that the vast majority — 93 percent — of homeless people living in Sacramento County were either born here, or are long-time residents.

Only about 7 percent of people said they had moved to Sacramento County within the last year.

“So the people that say we’re attracting homeless people because we have attractive programs, it’s just not true,” said Patrick Kennedy, chairman of the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors.

Myth: All homeless people are adults who are single

While the majority of people without housing are single adults, families with children represent 20 percent of all people experiencing homelessness.

On a single night in January, during the count, about 372 families with children — 451 adults and 688 children — were living on the streets outside or staying in a shelter.

Additionally, about 8 percent of homeless people are unaccompanied youths.

Myth: Homelessness is rapidly growing in suburban areas

In 2019, about 27 percent of homeless people — about 1,050 people — who are unsheltered live outside Sacramento city limits, in cities and suburbs, or in unincorporated areas, according the point-in-time count.

Two years ago, it was about 40 percent, with about 1,155 people.

Researchers note that this year’s count doubled its canvassing area to better examine and track cities outside of Sacramento, with triple the volunteer staff and two nights of the survey instead of one.

Myth: The homeless all use drugs or have mental health issues

Only 9 percent of unsheltered homeless people interviewed said their use of alcohol or drugs prevents them from keeping a job or maintaining stable housing.

The framing of that question is important because many people who aren’t homeless and have 9-to-5 jobs are drinking and using recreational drugs regularly, said Sacramento State professor Susanna Curry, who helped analyze the census data.

About 1 in 5 have a severe mental health condition such as severe depression or schizophrenia, according to the report.

Myth: They don’t want help, and choose to be on the streets

More affordable housing is overwhelmingly the top request among homeless people in Sacramento County. Nearly half — 45 percent — of all the homeless people interviewed during the count cited it as the key barrier they face, according to the census.

Affordable housing was cited even more frequently among unsheltered parents, veterans and seniors.

Job training or job opportunities, rental assistance and emergency shelter beds were also frequently mentioned as areas where the county could better serve homeless people.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks covers Sacramento County and the cities and suburbs beyond the capital. She’s previously worked at The New York Times and NPR, and is a former Bee intern. She graduated from UC Berkeley, where she was the managing editor of The Daily Californian.
Support my work with a digital subscription
Mike Finch joined The Bee in July 2018 as a data reporter after working at newspapers in Alabama and Florida. A Miami native, he has been a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors since 2012 and studied political science at Florida International University.