They work in a place of power and privilege: California’s state Capitol building.
But just beyond the marbled floors and ornate chambers where laws are made and deals are struck, legislative lobbyists, staffers and others often feel a sense of helplessness. On the streets that surround the Capitol dome, a growing number of homeless people sleep and wander, their plight more visible than ever.
On Friday, more than 150 people who work in or near the Capitol gathered to ask city officials and homeless advocates how they should respond in the moment and in the future.
They wondered whether they should give food or money to homeless men and women they encounter. They asked whom they should call if they see someone who might be mentally ill or in need of a shelter for the night. They inquired about whether any resources are available for homeless people who are unwilling to part with their pets.
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A panel of people who are immersed in the subject, including service providers and Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who has made curbing homelessness a centerpiece of his administration, had no easy answers. They said it is generally OK to hand out food and small amounts of money, but that the real answer is more affordable housing and programs to address substance abuse, mental illness and lack of health care among the city’s homeless population.
The numbers of people without permanent housing in Sacramento County varies from estimates of 2,500 to more than 10,000, depending upon who is counting and the definition of homelessness. In recent years their numbers have grown, a phenomenon that many blame on downtown development, rising rents and a lack of housing and services for people with very low incomes.
Friday’s forum grew out of concern from a handful of Capitol lobbyists, including Jennifer Fearing, who said she refuses “to just walk by” homeless people and do nothing to help them. “I don’t want to lose my humanity,” she said.
Fearing and fellow organizer Christine Dugger asked participants to bring light rail passes, Starbucks cards, toiletry samples, dog treats and socks to the forum to donate to people who live on the streets around the Capitol building.
Sitting in the front row of the meeting was Brenda Flowers, 70, who said she slept on the streets of Sacramento for more than two years after losing her Section 8 housing in San Francisco. She tried to obtain shelter, she said, but none would accept her pup, Maya.
“Maya is my best friend,” she said. So she stayed outside, placing Maya in a kennel next to her while she slept.
Having animals is a major barrier to finding housing for homeless men and women, said Front Street Animal Shelter manager Gina Knepp.
“Whether you think people who are homeless should have pets or not, they do, and they will,” Knepp said at the forum. “Their relationship with that animal probably is the closest bond they have with anyone,” and some would rather remain homeless than give up their animals, she said.
Recently, with help from Knepp and other city officials, Flowers found a place to live.
The city still has no shelters for people with pets, but a facility planned at a controversial North Sacramento site is expected to allow animals.
Also in the audience Friday was David Husid, who said he became homeless even though his early life and education marked him for success. He urged people in the audience against passing judgment on those they see on the streets, because “you really don’t know their backstories,” he said.
“Don’t look at a homeless person as ‘less than,’” Husid said. “Because I can tell you that if it happened to me, it can happen to anyone.”
He also is living proof, he said, that people can change if they receive help and support. Husid now works at the nonprofit Cottage Housing program.
Steinberg told the audience that the city and county are moving in the right direction, working to direct tens of millions of dollars toward services and housing for the homeless. He has pledged to move 2,000 people off of the streets within three years.
“There’s no magic wand here,” he said. “But we can do much better than we are doing now.”
The mayor agreed to meet later with organizers of the forum in hopes of establishing a citizen’s committee on homelessness and housing.
“I know what it’s like when you guys turn it on in the Legislature,” he said, looking around at the audience. “I can’t even imagine what the firepower in this room could do” to make a dent in the homeless crisis.
Outside, on the lawn, just steps from where he spoke, a disheveled woman was bundled in a bed roll.