Sacramento winter shelter program for homeless still needs funding

Volunteer Tom Platina of Capital Christian Center helps check in patrons seeking shelter with the Winter Sanctuary program on Monday. The program still needs $100,000 to be able to house 100 people nightly in rotating houses of worship.
Volunteer Tom Platina of Capital Christian Center helps check in patrons seeking shelter with the Winter Sanctuary program on Monday. The program still needs $100,000 to be able to house 100 people nightly in rotating houses of worship. Aseng@sacbee.com

Monday marked the start of what’s become a late-autumn ritual in Sacramento County: Homeless men and women boarded buses bound for churches and other houses of worship in the region, grateful for the chance to get a hot meal and a safe place to spend the night as temperatures dip toward freezing.

But the Winter Sanctuary program this year will be providing homeless guests with more than simply shelter and food, organizers said. The program will step up efforts to connect people with job training, mental health counseling and other services that could help them build stable lives.

“This is more than just, ‘Let’s get people off the streets tonight,’” said the Rev. Rick Cole, whose Capital Christian Center is the first congregation this winter to host the homeless. “We want to take advantage of the moment. We will have agencies on site to help people with all kinds of supportive services.”

Cole, whose megachurch is one of the largest in the region, briefly lived on the streets earlier this fall, sleeping in alleyways and along the river in an effort to raise money for the shelter program. The experience “touched me in such a way that I feel so much more attached to Winter Sanctuary and what it means,” he said. His efforts raised around $170,000.

Another $100,000 will be needed to fund the program through March, said Maya Wallace of Sacramento Steps Forward, a nonprofit that in recent years has managed millions of dollars in funding for homeless programs in the county.

Local businesses, including members of the River District, the Downtown Sacramento Partnership and the Teichert Foundation, among others, collectively have chipped in about $25,000 toward Winter Sanctuary, Wallace said. Sacramento Steps Forward on Monday issued a “business challenge,” asking area companies to contribute $1,100 apiece. That’s the cost, she said, of feeding and sheltering one person for 100 nights in houses of worship.

“I’m confident we’ll get there,” Wallace said.

The nomadic shelter program, launched in the winter of 2010, serves about 100 people each night. It reaches only a small percentage of the homeless population in Sacramento, where on any given night an estimated 2,500 people are without permanent housing.

Participants are bused from the Loaves & Fishes downtown homeless services complex to whatever house of worship is volunteering to take them that week. They are provided dinner, spend the night in church dining halls, community centers or gyms, and get breakfast the next morning before being bused back to Loaves.

About two dozen congregations are rotating the responsibility of housing homeless people this year. Sacramento Steps Forward is looking for at least six more willing to do so, Wallace said.

The program’s budget of about $300,000 will cover the cost of the bus trips, as well as sleeping bags, laundry services, administrators who coordinate transportation, and an “outreach team” to evaluate clients and help connect them to services, Wallace said.

Wallace said the program has faced criticism in the past for failing to provide more than a roof for chronically homeless people who are in need of larger solutions. This year, various agencies will be working with the program, including WIND Youth Services, which works with homeless teens; the Downtown Partnership’s Navigator program, which connects homeless people with social services; and the Sacramento Police Department’s “impact team,” which offers crisis intervention.

Host congregations provide food for the program. On Thursday, Capital Christian volunteers will be celebrating Thanksgiving with their homeless guests, Cole said. “We have a very special meal planned, and we haven’t had any trouble finding folks who are willing to serve it that day.”

The county, which for years operated a winter shelter program at Cal Expo, has turned over homeless services to Sacramento Steps Forward and does not contribute to the sanctuary effort. But the county does plan to spend $2.7 million for other emergency homeless services this year, including $150,000 for winter beds, spokeswoman Chris Andis said.

Volunteers of America, which ran the sanctuary program during its first three years, “saw the same people year after year, and we tried to move them in the right direction” by steering them to additional services, spokeswoman Christie Holderegger said. But the agency, which runs several programs for homeless people, had trouble juggling funding and coordination of the program and its other shelters, Holderegger said.

“We just didn’t have the funding to do everything,” she said. Sacramento Steps Forward, with the help of religious leaders, took over the program last year, even as it struggled with cash flow, staff cuts and the departure of its executive director. The group manages private and public grant funding for homeless programs.

VOA, whose programs include a men’s shelter and an emergency shelter for families, also is placing more emphasis on finding permanent solutions to homelessness, Holderegger said. “We’re taking eligible individuals and offering them job training, coaching, and placement,” she said. VSP, Home Depot and Bonney Plumbing are among the businesses that have hired its graduates, she said.

Yolo County is using a similar philosophy in its pilot Bridge to Housing project, which earlier this month moved dozens of homeless people and their pets from a campsite along the Sacramento River to a converted motel where they are getting a host of services, including substance-abuse treatment and job counseling.

“It’s going amazingly well,” Karen Larsen, Yolo County’s mental health director, said Monday. “The residents are settling in well, taking ownership of their space, and really working as a community to prevent nefarious characters from hanging around.”

Yolo County and West Sacramento each pitched in $50,000 toward the project and are coordinating with faith and private industry groups. An estimated 475 homeless people live in Yolo County.

In addition to paying rent for the motel, the county has committed to funding treatment and counseling services for residents, 44 of whom have identified themselves as substance abusers or mentally ill. Many of them will qualify for subsidized housing when the pilot program ends, Larsen said.

Organizers say they hope Bridge to Housing can serve as a model for other cities.

“It’s easier to have success in Yolo County because we have a small population,” Larsen said. “But I’d like to think that the things we are trying here can be seen as pilot projects for other cities. I don’t know why it couldn’t be replicated.”

Call The Bee’s Cynthia Hubert, (916) 321-1082. Follow her on Twitter @Cynthia_Hubert.

For more information

To learn more about the “Winter Sanctuary” program, go to www.sacramentowintersanctuary.org. Checks may be mailed to Winter Sanctuary at Sacramento Steps Forward, 1331 Garden Highway, Suite 100, Sacramento, 95833.