The homeless population in Davis has become more visible on downtown corridors and along bike paths, as has been the case elsewhere in the Sacramento region in recent years.
Police have moved encampments, trying to balance public safety and humane treatment, said Bill Habicht, co-founder of the Common Good Center.
Mayor Robb Davis says homelessness is the No. 1 issue residents raise in emails and phone calls.
His answer? The city needs money to fund service programs, affordable housing and local nonprofits.
The mayor is pushing for a new parcel tax for social services, which would be the first such tax in the Sacramento region and among the first in the state. Social services are traditionally the purview of counties, but more cities are realizing they may need to pitch in as homelessness and affordable housing crises take root across California.
The homeless population in Davis has grown over the past few years, according to a census conducted in January. Between 2009 and 2017, the number of homeless people rose from 114 to 146, an increase of 28 percent. The numbers are considered rough estimates because it’s notoriously difficult to get accurate counts of homeless populations.
“It’s not a huge number compared to Sacramento and other places, but it is a much more visible homeless population than it was,” Davis said. “I believe we can get our arms around it, but it’s a long walk.”
Between 2013 and 2017, the number of people found on the street rather than in a shelter nearly tripled from 23 to 63, while the number of people in shelters dropped from 91 to 83.
Those on the street “tend to be folks that have some serious addiction issues and they’re our ‘last mile’ population,” Davis said, meaning they have the deepest need for services and are the least likely to seek or accept help.
Davis City Council members discussed different tax ideas during Tuesday’s meeting and left without settling the future of the social services tax, though the mayor expressed cautious optimism Thursday.
He said his colleagues are fully committed to finding ways to help the homeless, but are concerned about the political risk of loading the 2018 ballot with too many taxes.
Officials also want a tax for parks, as well as a separate transportation tax for road improvements and bike paths.
“I’m not willing to close the door on the social services tax, though I must say, the political side of me treads somewhat cautiously when we get to this third parcel tax,” Council member Will Arnold said at the meeting.
“If you put two initiatives on the ballot and you need (a two-thirds vote) on both of them, there’s a risk neither will pass,” Davis said.
If the social services proposal moves forward, the question would go to voters on the June 2018 ballot.
“All of these dollars would be new dollars,” Assistant City Manager Kelly Stachowicz said during the meeting. “These are not services that we’re providing in a consistent way at this point. Some are brand new, some we don’t provide at all.”
Over the past couple of years, the city of Davis has launched a series of “Pathways” programs to get its homeless population into housing and jobs. One program – short-term housing program in a city-owned house – is a joint city-Yolo County effort. Another, a job training program, is funded by private donors and a county agency.
The mayor sees a parcel tax as a way to put steady, sustainable funding into these programs and allow for expansion. A separate program for people waiting to receive a federal housing voucher is funded by Sutter Health’s Getting to Zero initiative.
Davis said while Sutter Health has been generous and committed to combating homelessness, Getting to Zero dollars could still dry up after the initial investment. Coming from the nonprofit sector, he said he knows firsthand how hard it is to create lasting programs when relying on grants awarded in three-year cycles.
“If we really want to tackle the most intractable problems ... we need a secure funding stream for a long period of time,” he said.
In California, counties typically provide social services, but with homelessness on the rise across the state, cities are starting to get involved. Sacramento recently negotiated with the county for a $44 million contribution over three years to a new, city-led homeless services program.
“It’s not common, but we’ve been seeing more cities and counties passing taxes of various kinds for more social services kinds of purposes,” said Michael Coleman, fiscal policy adviser for the League of California Cities. “Cities that want to take a step up from what the county is doing to address social service issues” are the ones going the tax route.
It’s more common for cities to pass propositions or measures to raise money or remove regulatory obstacles for affordable housing, as Berkeley, San Diego, Los Angeles and Eureka did last November. Similar measures in Healdsburg and San Francisco failed.
Communities that have especially progressive values are more likely to jump into homeless services, Coleman said. Berkeley’s city council passed a transitional housing package over the summer and officials said at the time they intended to ask voters to fund it in 2018, but didn’t specify which kind of tax they will pursue.
Los Angeles city voters passed a $12 billion bond measure to build permanent housing for the homeless last November. In March, L.A. County voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax to fund homeless services. Cities to the west of L.A. went in big for measure, with vote tallies in West Hollywood, Santa Monica and Beverly Hills topping 70 percent in favor.
Council members in Davis agreed Tuesday that voters should see tax measures for parks maintenance and transportation on the ballot, but debate continued over whether it should be a parcel tax, utility user tax or sales tax. The council has until the first meeting in February to decide which taxes to send to the 2018 ballot.