The Homeless

After 30 years on the streets, she's no longer homeless. Here's how she found housing

With a cardboard sign from when she was homeless still on her coffee table, Katherine Ann Wahl remembers her years living on the streets, at her new home in Sacramento. Wahl was homeless for 31 years before finding permanent housing through the Winter Triage Shelter.
With a cardboard sign from when she was homeless still on her coffee table, Katherine Ann Wahl remembers her years living on the streets, at her new home in Sacramento. Wahl was homeless for 31 years before finding permanent housing through the Winter Triage Shelter. rbenton@sacbee.com

Katherine Ann Wahl long had been a fixture at busy intersections around Sacramento's central city, holding a sign made from a cardboard box that read: "Need Help. Thank You. God Bless."

For decades, she panhandled by day to collect money for food and cigarettes. At night, she retreated to a hidden camping spot where she "slept with one eye open" and prayed for safety until daylight came.

Wahl, 61, was homeless for the better part of 30 years, she said. But now she lives in a south Sacramento apartment where she can cook meals, sleep in a comfortable bed and lock her front door. She also has medical and dental care.

She said she owes it all to a team of homeless "navigators" who in December convinced her to leave the streets and move into Sacramento's winter triage shelter on Railroad Drive in North Sacramento. Once there, shelter staff helped her obtain critical documents that made the housing and medical care possible.

"It amazes me that I was able to get a place like this," Wahl said, standing in the living room of her small apartment, which she has decorated with Goodwill furniture. "It's home, and I love it."

Without the winter shelter program, Wahl said, "I was going to die on the streets."

Wahl is one of more than 300 homeless people who have lived at the shelter since it opened in early December. At least a third of its residents were on the streets for more than a year. Some, like Wahl, had been living outdoors for much longer. The shelter, which operates 24 hours a day, allows couples to stay together and accepts pets.

At a community meeting Thursday, March 1, 2018, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg made the case to expand shelter options.

When city officials pitched the shelter late last year to skeptical North Sacramento residents, they promised the facility would do more than provide beds and meals. It would partner with various organizations to help people obtain identification cards, Social Security benefits, medical care and counseling, among other services. One of the most important goals, said Mayor Darrell Steinberg and others, would be to connect as many residents as possible with safe and affordable housing.

So far, 43 people who have come through the shelter have found housing, according to city statistics. That figure includes former shelter residents who have reunited with family members, enrolled in addiction "recovery programs" that include housing, or simply rented a room, said Emily Halcon, the city's homeless services coordinator.

Finding permanent housing for chronically homeless people, some of whom have serious medical and mental health problems and multiple pets, has been challenging, Halcon said. "But we have some really resourceful housing partners, and we are seeing new successful housing outcomes every week."

The shelter, originally scheduled to close at the end of March, now will stay open at least through May, Halcon said. The city is searching for another shelter site, but has yet to finalize a location, she said.

Some North Sacramento residents argue that the facility has drawn more homeless people to the area, which already is beset by crime and poverty. They worry that its presence may cause property values to decline, and want the city to find other neighborhoods to host homeless services. City officials said they are considering neighborhoods across Sacramento.

Run by Volunteers of America, the shelter costs more than $400,000 a month to operate, a price tag that includes contract workers and extra police patrols in the surrounding area. Steinberg has said the shelter will pay for itself, and more, if it keeps homeless people off of the streets and out of jails and hospital emergency rooms.

Wahl's story is an example of "what can happen when we are all truly working together," said Patrick Cornell, a community health worker for the city's new Pathways to Health + Home program, which helps connect homeless people to the triage shelter and other services. "It has been a group effort from all of our organizations," including housing specialists, health care partners and the Sacramento Police Department, Cornell said.

The police department's "homeless impact team," which includes outreach and mental health specialists, first approached Wahl in November. She was camping under a freeway overpass near Broadway and 21st Street. "You can't help me," she recalled telling officers. She asked them to leave her alone. Instead, they contacted Cornell, who approached her on several occasions, urging her to enter the shelter.

"I told her, 'Listen, I won't quit,'" he said. "I'm going to help you any way I can, and I won't stop until we make some things happen for you."

Cornell's persistence paid off.

"I had been out there for 29 years," Wahl said. "I have been attacked, robbed, beaten. I was 60 years old. It was time."

Life at the shelter, which houses a maximum of 200 people and dozens of pets, was chaotic at times, Wahl said. "But for me, it was a godsend."

The police impact team worked with authorities in Washington state to clear a decades-old arrest warrant against Wahl for a misdemeanor narcotics offense. The outstanding warrant long had prevented Wahl from obtaining government benefits. "It's not unusual for us to intervene if it's a minor warrant and it's preventing someone from getting services," said Sacramento police spokesman Vance Chandler.

Once Washington authorities agreed to drop the warrant, contract workers at the shelter were able to help Wahl obtain the documentation she needed to get a Social Security card, Medi-Cal, food stamps and a referral for permanent supportive housing. Her age and background made her a good candidate for the housing complex in south Sacramento, which serves seniors who have various health challenges. She interviewed for a spot and moved in two months ago.

Wahl's only brushes with the law in Sacramento County are citations for illegal camping, records show.

Her improved circumstances are proof that the city's "Whole Person Care" approach to homelessness is working, said Lilly Clements, project manager for the Pathways program. Sacramento's Whole Person Care grant will bring in $64 million over the next three years in federal dollars, plus matching funds from the city and local hospitals. The money goes toward a comprehensive outreach program designed to keep homeless people out of emergency rooms, stabilize their lives with existing county and city services, and move them toward permanent housing. The county agreed to kick in $44 million over the next three years to fund mental health and substance abuse treatment.

Pathways is part of that effort. "Our major role at the shelter is to coordinate housing and health care," Clements said. "That includes making sure every client has what they need, whether it's health insurance, behavioral health care, addiction treatment, specialty referrals. We help them get appointments, and we make sure they get to the appointments. We refer them for housing, and we try to locate a place that fits their needs."

Wahl's days have been unremarkable and pleasant since she moved into her small apartment, she said. She visits a nearby library, and attends a church that is within walking distance. She reads in her living room and watches "Roseanne" on TV. She has made a few friends who live in the complex.

Since she has no steady income, Wahl pays no rent for her federally funded apartment, which is managed by Next Move, a nonprofit group that serves homeless people. She has a case manager to ensure she gets the services she needs. If and when she begins receiving Social Security payments, a portion of her checks will go toward her rent.

Wahl said her future goals are simple. She wants to "live again (and) be a functioning member of society," she said. That will involve, in part, getting her health on track, fixing her teeth and staying off of illegal drugs, which she said she used for a time on the streets.

Wahl became homeless after fleeing the warrant in Washington state nearly 30 years ago, she said. Before she left, she had been making a living doing odd jobs, including hauling wood and cleaning up trash. Soon after arriving in California, her car was stolen and she wound up homeless, she said. She survived mostly by panhandling and accepting food, clothing and other essential items from church groups and others who help homeless people.

She washed herself using hoses at a body shop and other businesses, and occasionally showered at the YMCA. Finding a public bathroom was a constant challenge. Nights at her campsite were "horrific," she said.

"When the sun went down, I just prayed," she said. "You just kind of sleep with one eye open and hope you'll be safe. You're so tired from being out in the weather, but it's hard to sleep."

When she stepped into the triage shelter for the first time, "I remember looking at it and saying, 'Thank God. I have a bed!' It was the first time I had felt safe in 29 years. I don't think I woke up the next morning for breakfast or lunch. I just slept and slept."

In her new apartment, she feels rested and hopeful, she said.

"I can take a bath for as long as I want to," she said with a smile as a light breeze blew through an open window. "I can make my own dinner. Things are getting better every day.

"I praise God ... I went to the triage shelter," she said. "It was the best decision I have ever made."

It is natural to want to help people in need, but experts say giving cash to panhandlers may not be the best method. A better way to help is by donating to local charities designed to work with the homeless.

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