The Homeless

Sacramento County approves $44 million for homeless mental health and drug abuse services

The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved $44 million over the next three years for a homeless prevention program spearheaded by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg.

The county will now partner with the city of Sacramento by first providing better coordinated care in emergency rooms – often the main point of contact for many living on the streets, especially those with mental and physical ailments. Services would include mental health and substance abuse treatment.

It marked a reversal for county leaders on the Whole Person Care project aimed at channeling homeless people into housing. For months, supervisors have rebuffed Steinberg’s push for a joint effort between the two local governments.

The vote came after a four-hour hearing. Nearly all of the roughly 40 people who testified at the hearing supported the vote, including homeless service providers and formerly homeless individuals.

Steinberg’s Whole Person Care grant will bring in $64 million over the next three years – $32 million in federal money matched by local funds from the city and hospitals. The money will pay for a comprehensive outreach program designed to keep homeless people out of the ER, stabilize their lives with existing county and city services and move them toward permanent housing. City outreach workers began contacting homeless individuals last week and have already referred 37 into services.

Tuesday’s agreement also includes $4 million a year toward the program after the three-year grant period ends. With the county’s commitment, the region will have about $108 million in the next three years to address the growing homeless population on Sacramento streets. Steinberg called it “the largest infusion of new resources for homelessness” in Sacramento history.

“This is, in my opinion, a watershed moment for our community,” the mayor told the Board of Supervisors. He said the funding will allow service providers “to combat this growing problem aggressively now – now – and not at some uncertain time in the future.”

The county money will come from state funds transferred to counties for mental health care, derived from a 1 percent tax on millionaires under legislation co-authored by Steinberg when he was in the Assembly.

“The fact that it was a unanimous vote makes clear the seriousness with which the board takes its charge to effectively reduce homelessness in the communities we represent,” said Supervisor Phil Serna, who crafted the $44 million plan over the weekend with Steinberg and Supervisor Patrick Kennedy.

Asked whether the public will see a reduction in homeless people on the streets and in the American River Parkway, Serna was emphatic.

“We better see a change. This is a massive commitment of funds. At some point you have to take a pretty bold step,” he said.

Supervisors Sue Frost and Susan Peters, who represent suburbs in the northeast part of the county, voiced the loudest concerns with the $44 million agreement. Frost asked that supervisors delay the vote after receiving the funding proposal Monday night and feared that allocating money to Whole Person Care would take money away from other homeless services.

“What programs are we cutting? How does it all shake out?” Frost said. “I’m very concerned about protecting our general fund.”

County Executive Nav Gill said it did not appear other county-run homeless services would suffer.

Serna said it took some doing to get the unanimous vote in part because the plan was viewed as city-centric, but also because of pushback from county staff. He and others stressed that the new money would be used to treat anyone within the county, not just those referred by the Whole Person program.

Dealing with homelessness is traditionally a function of county government, not cities. But Steinberg has faced mounting pressure on the homelessness issue, with critics wanting more city action and an end to the city’s anti-camping ordinance.

The most recent homeless count released in July found 3,665 people living without permanent shelter in Sacramento County and 2,000 of those people living outside. The total number of homeless was the highest number the county has ever recorded.

About one homeless person has died every week while living on the streets of Sacramento County over the last 15 years, according to a report by the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness documenting the deaths of 776 people between 2002 and 2016 who the Coroner’s Office determined were homeless.

Ryan Lillis: 916-321-1085, @Ryan_Lillis

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