The Homeless

Is new North Sacramento homeless shelter turning out to be a solution or ‘a sham’?

Nearly three weeks after a controversial homeless shelter opened in North Sacramento, some observers said the new “triage” facility has done little, if anything, to reduce homelessness in the neighborhood. In fact, some said, it may be attracting homeless people from other areas who hope to enter the facility as it ramps up operations.

“I think it’s kind of like a sham,” said Nancy Kitz, who represents a public interest group that monitors local government. Walking on the American River Parkway not far from the shelter, she pointed to a rash of encampments where people continued to live outdoors, their dome tents, grills and other possessions scattered about.

“The problem is not being managed,” Kitz said. “There are propane tanks out here, open fires, environmental concerns. It’s dangerous and inhumane. Who is going to help these people?”

Volunteers of America, which is operating the facility in a converted warehouse under contract with the city, said the winter shelter currently is serving dozens of men and women who once lived along the American River. These people now are sleeping in bunk beds, eating three meals a day and using portable showers, sinks and toilets. Their pets sleep beside them at night, and by day, they are getting help obtaining ID cards, Social Security payments and other resources that organizers hope will lead them to permanent homes and stable lives.

VOA officials said other campers, some of whom have been living along the river for years, likely will enter the facility in the coming weeks as workers finish anchoring beds and building partitions. The shelter expects to expand from 50 beds to 100 beds this week, and ultimately to 200, said the VOA’s Christie Holderegger.

“Of course there are still people living outside,” Holderegger said of Kitz’s concerns. “There are 2,000 unsheltered people in Sacramento County,” and only a fraction of shelter beds to accommodate them, she said. On any given night in Sacramento County, most shelter beds are occupied.

The winter shelter admits people via “navigators” who contact them in the field, with priority given to people camping out in North Sacramento. The shelter has turned down people who “walk in” asking for a bed, referring them to navigators, Holderegger said. Those rules, some said, have left desperate people out in the cold.

“It seems to me that something is missing in terms of urgency,” said Sharon Wright, owner of Carol’s Books along Del Paso Boulevard. Wright said she has noticed an uptick in homeless people wandering the boulevard. A few, she said, have told her they tried but failed to get into the winter facility on nearby Railroad Drive, which is scheduled to remain open through March.

VOA is eager to open the facility to more people, Holderegger said. Now that the facility has all of the required permits from the city, workers are busy preparing the space for more people, bicycles and other possessions, and pets, she said.

The winter shelter is just one part of the city’s larger strategy to deal with a growing crisis of homelessness, said Mayor Darrell Steinberg.

Steinberg and others said they see the winter facility as a first step toward putting homeless people on the road to better mental and physical health and ultimately stable housing.

“I view the winter shelter as a beginning, an essential part of our comprehensive plan,” the mayor said. “We’re getting people off of the streets during the cold weather, but we’re also taking advantage of a great opportunity to dramatically change their lives.”

Under Steinberg’s leadership, the city and county recently agreed to commit $108 million over the next three years toward getting people off of the streets forever using an approach known as Whole Person Care. Dozens of people already have entered that pipeline, Steinberg said.

If the approach works, said City Councilman Jeff Harris, the payoff could be substantial. “If we could move even 100 people into housing, it would pay for the cost of the shelter,” he said, because fewer people would be outdoors causing disturbances, committing crimes and landing in emergency rooms and jails.

The city may open a more permanent homeless shelter next year if the winter facility is successful, Harris said. Officials are looking at several possible locations for that facility, including in North Sacramento.

“It’s up to us to prove to the people of this neighborhood that this can work,” Steinberg said when the winter shelter opened Dec. 8. “This is a very important demonstration to the entire city.”

Holderegger said the winter facility’s goal is to find housing for a majority of its residents by the time the facility closes. A few people already have moved in with relatives or into board and care homes, she said, and “10 to 15 others have housing appointments.”

Barriers remain, however. Finding affordable units, especially for people who have pets, medical problems or mental health issues, is a challenge, Holderegger said. Nevertheless, considering that the shelter opened only a few weeks after receiving city approval, “I think things are going even better than expected,” she said.

Residents of the winter shelter are free to come and go as they please but are expected to refrain from violence and drug and alcohol abuse at the facility, Holderegger said. So far, no one has been thrown out for violating the rules, she said. The shelter has been linked to only a handful of police calls, including at least two “domestic disturbance” reports, said Sacramento police spokesman Bryce Heinlein.

But some North Sacramento residents worry the shelter is attracting more homeless people to the area. Woodlake resident Jane Macaulay said she and others have noticed a marked increase in homeless people walking along nearby Del Paso Boulevard. Business owners have been “inundated with requests for referrals to the shelter,” said Macaulay.

“Who are we helping? Who are we hurting?” she asked.

Wright, the bookstore owner, said homeless people long have been a fixture on Del Paso. She passes out hygiene items and sometimes allows people to use her restroom, she said. But in recent weeks, Wright said, she has noticed more unfamiliar faces. Some have told her they have traveled from other areas around the region to try to get a bed at the winter facility, she said.

“The challenge of homelessness hits us every day,” Wright said of business owners in North Sacramento. “Everyone’s tired. We are just really tired, and we want a solution.”

City officials said they have set aside hundreds of thousands of dollars to offset potential impacts of the winter shelter on nearby businesses. In addition, they have committed $175,000 to increased police patrols around the shelter.

Macaulay and Kitz said they support the effort to house homeless people, but believe the city should operate small shelters in many neighborhoods. The large winter facility, they said, puts an unfair burden on North Sacramento, an area that already has more than its share of crime and poverty.

“The formula of opening one shelter in one district hurts that district directly,” Macaulay said. “Of course folks are going to gravitate to our area to get a place. They have taken in 50 people, and we have 150 hanging out with no place to go.”

The Bee interviewed residents of three campsites within walking distance of the winter shelter. None of the campers said they moved to the area in hopes of landing a spot at the facility, although all expressed some interest in getting a bed at the shelter.

Inside the shelter last week, residents said they were thrilled to be out of the cold, and had hopes for the future for the first time in years.

Paula Richardson, 55, was one of the first people to land a spot at the facility. Richardson had been camping along the American River for about 17 years, she said, before a navigator approached her and offered her a shelter that would accept her dog.

“It was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she said, tears welling in her eyes as she cuddled the pup. “Within three days of being here, I had my ID. Now I can sign up for Social Security, maybe get a house, get my life in order. And I’m sleeping like a baby.”

Cynthia Hubert: 916-321-1082, @Cynthia_Hubert

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