The Homeless

Winter shelter’s promise to find homeless people housing has mostly gone unfulfilled

'It helps out a lot'

Marty Leeman explains how the winter triage shelter is helping some homeless people in Sacramento.
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Marty Leeman explains how the winter triage shelter is helping some homeless people in Sacramento.

The city’s new winter “triage” shelter in North Sacramento was supposed to be a place where homeless campers would spend a few weeks or months before moving into stable housing with the help of a team of service providers.

But so far, the promise of relocating chronically homeless people into apartments and houses has mostly gone unfulfilled.

As of last week, 252 people had spent time at the shelter since its opening on Dec. 8, said Emily Halcon, the city’s homeless services coordinator. Forty-eight people voluntarily left the facility, she said. Only eight had moved into housing units.

Halcon and others said a lack of affordable housing in the capital city, particularly for people who suffer from mental health and addiction problems, has been the biggest obstacle.

“The availability of housing at an affordable rate is very limited,” Halcon said, as evidenced by the fact that tens of thousands of people recently have applied to join a waiting list for 7,000 subsidized housing slots in Sacramento. “If you’re one of our guests and you’re lining up behind people who have a job and transportation, your odds are not great.”

Still the shelter, which operates around the clock and offers meals, restroom facilities, pet care and “wrap-around” services designed to put guests on a path toward housing and stability, has had some successes, Halcon said.

“We are seeing people coming off of the river for the first time in 30 years, so that in itself can be viewed as a success,” she said. “For many of them, connecting with a case manager, getting an ID or going to the doctor are huge successes. Are they all going to get housing? Maybe not. But we are working with them and will continue to engage with them,” even after the shelter closes at the end of March.

Among the guests at the winter facility are three people who, collectively, “have been homeless for 120 years,” said Christie Holderegger of Volunteers of America, which is contracting with the city to operate the shelter. “Between them, they have made about 400 visits to emergency rooms and have been in jail 39 times. Now they’re sheltered.”

Many guests have untreated mental illnesses and severe addictions, and service providers are helping people take the first steps toward addressing them, Holderegger said.

With three social service case managers from Volunteers of America, and three more from the city’s new Whole Person Care program, the converted warehouse on Railroad Drive near Del Paso Boulevard “is the most service rich shelter for single adults currently in operation,” Halcon said. But some guests need more complicated treatment than the shelter can offer, and the community lacks enough services for people with little or no income.

“The community needs more mental health dollars,” said Halcon. “Without access to enriched substance abuse and mental health services, the people we serve will be getting only part of what they need.”

The winter shelter, part of a broad plan that Mayor Darrell Steinberg has outlined to deal with Sacramento’s burgeoning homeless crisis, costs the city approximately $1.3 million to operate. It gives priority to men and women who live in encampments in and around North Sacramento, officials have said.

Guests are allowed to enter only through referrals from “navigators” from nonprofit groups who roam the area looking for candidates. The shelter currently is at maximum capacity, with about 200 people, Halcon said.

The Bee spoke to more than a dozen homeless people who either are guests of the shelter or are interested in getting into the facility. They offered mixed reviews of the system.

Michael Porter, who said he lived outdoors in North Sacramento for about four years before entering the shelter, said he believes the facility is making a difference for people like him. He said his sister, who is disabled, and her husband recently found housing in the Meadowview area with help from personnel at the winter facility.

“The shelter is not a bad place,” said Porter, 34. “It’s better than sleeping out here,” he said, gesturing toward an open area across the street from the facility. “They’re actively doing stuff for people. They’re actually helping us for the first time.”

Porter said he and his girlfriend are confident about finding housing before the shelter shuts it doors on March 31.

Arturo Lerma, 48, said he would like to get into the facility. When police recently rousted him while he was sleeping at a campsite near the shelter, he asked if they could help him get enrolled. Instead, he said, they slapped a “Notice to Vacate” sticker on his tent and issued a citation for illegal camping.

“They told me to move along to some place where they can’t see me,” Lerma said.

“I’ve been looking for these navigators,” he said. “Where are they?”

His friend Sharon Jones, 48, has been at the winter shelter since its December opening. Jones struggles with mental issues and physical pain from a bad ankle, she said, adding she is grateful to be indoors. But she is unsure where she will go when the facility closes. “Right now, they’re helping me get my ID,” she said. Jones said she has completed the paperwork to get the card. But she has no transportation and “I’m not very good at getting to places,” such as the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Some North Sacramento residents complain that the shelter has brought more problems to their neighborhood, which already has high crime and poverty rates.

“The city told us that their priority would be sheltering people camping in this area,” said Woodlake resident Elaine Jackson. But instead, Jackson said, “people are coming from all over” in hopes of entering the facility. “There are more homeless people here than ever.”

Halcon pointed out that North Sacramento has long had many homeless encampments. But the issue “is more visible now,” she said, because of the public attention on the shelter. “People are now looking at this area, and they’re seeing the encampments.”

Shane Curry, president of the North Sacramento Chamber of Commerce, agreed with Jackson that the more homeless people have arrived in the neighborhood since the shelter opened.

“There definitely is an increase of homeless people along the boulevard,” said Curry, who owns a business near Del Paso and Arden Way. “I see the impact on a daily basis. I see faces that I recognize, but I also see new faces.”

Curry is not ready to condemn the city’s shelter experiment, however.

“I believe the city is doing its best to deal with this issue,” he said. “They’re creating the wheel as they go. Things could be a lot worse.”

“Somebody has to do something to help these folks, and I applaud the effort,” Curry said. “It’s too early for us to make an assessment. If 20 or 30 people end up getting into housing because of this, then maybe that’s the gold at the end of the rainbow.”

Cynthia Hubert: 916-321-1082, @Cynthia_Hubert

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