The Homeless

Homeless people are moving from the river to homes in the suburbs. Does this approach work?

A few miles and a world away from her longtime encampment along the American River, Susan Delph sat in her dining room in South Natomas on a recent afternoon and sipped hot tea. Her cat, Socks, polished her ankles as she read the latest political news on her iPad.

For seven years, Delph lived homeless. She spent the last two hunkered down in hidden spots along the river, where she dodged park rangers who issued her citations for illegal camping and urged her to move along.

A few months ago, some of those same rangers came by her tent and offered her an alternative. She could move into a home in a quiet neighborhood in South Natomas with her campmates.

The program, new to Sacramento County, is aimed at temporarily sheltering as many as 75 homeless men and women at a time in homes scattered throughout the area and providing case managers to help steer them toward stability and permanent housing. The transitional shelters are "low barrier," meaning that people can qualify even if they have addictions, pets or other issues that might disqualify them from traditional housing programs.

Delph and the other members of her encampment, a tightly knit group of five people ranging in age from 19 to late 50s, jumped at the opportunity.

In March, they moved into a neatly tended four-bedroom, two-bathroom home on a quiet street near Bannon Creek Park. The house is one of 10 that the county is using as shelters for chronically homeless people, many of whom had previously resided in river encampments.

Rangers who patrol the American River Parkway help identify campers who are particularly vulnerable living outdoors, and who are open to changing their lifestyles, said Julie Field, homeless services program manager for the county's Department of Human Assistance.

"Many of these folks have been on the river for a very long time and have severe health issues," Field said. "They're going to die out there. The goal is to convince them to come inside, in a setting that is not institutional, and work toward finding them permanent housing."

Through a contract with the county, nonprofit Sacramento Self Help Housing rents homes for the program and provides a house manager for each transitional living shelter. Case managers work with participants to apply for various benefits, obtain ID cards and other documents, sign up for health care, get treatment for addictions, obtain vouchers for subsidized housing and, ultimately, find a permanent place to live.

The goal is for residents of the transitional homes to move into permanent housing within 90 days, although they can stay longer if they are unable to find stable homes that quickly. County officials hope that 250 people a year will flow through the shelters.

The model for housing homeless people in neighborhood homes is a relatively new to Sacramento County. Elk Grove has a similar program, and others have sprung up recently in other areas, including Citrus Heights. The county's program is one of more than $7 million in initiatives this year aimed at curbing homelessness, which a recent census suggests has increased by at least 30 percent in the area since 2015.

The Sacramento area's tight housing market has proved to be "a big obstacle" to finding temporary and permanent homes for the transitional living program, said Cindy Cavanaugh, director of the county's homeless initiatives. "Things are moving slower than we want, but we're making progress," she said. As of last week, 10 rental homes were in operation, and a few people in the program had found permanent housing. At least two more homes should open in the near future, officials said.

In an effort to encourage participation and ease the transition from homelessness to living indoors, former campers are in many cases allowed to move together to transitional shelters where they can "continue to coexist as a family," said case manager Fonda Whitney-Ramirez.

That carrot helped convince members of Delph's encampment to make the move. Outdoors, Delph said, the group was clean, orderly and respectful of one another. "We had it down to a science," she said. "We protected one another."

Delph, 59, recalled mornings at her most recent campsite off of Northgate Boulevard with some wistfulness. She often was awakened by the squawks of wild turkeys trudging past her tent. At night, she sometimes fell asleep to the hoots of owls. "At times, it was fun. It really was," she said.

But she remembers the hard times, too, including the difficulties of finding shower and bathroom facilities and places to wash clothes. Winter days when the wind howled and the rain pelted her tent "were a headache, I'll put it that way," Delph said in a soft southern accent, a carryover from her former life in Kentucky.

Delph has stayed on and off in shelters, but typically the facilities she contacted had waiting lists for beds, she said. "Most of the beds are for single men and families," she said. "There is very little available for a single woman like me."

It was in Kentucky that Delph first became homeless after the death of her mother, followed by a nasty divorce and the loss of the motor home where she had been living, she recalled. She survives on monthly Social Security disability payments, which she said she receives for a back injury she suffered working at a retail store many years ago.

Since moving into the South Natomas house in March, all but one of Delph's former campmates have scattered. One has moved to a county shelter that focuses on employment, and is working full time, Field said. Another has returned to Oregon to live with relatives. One is in the hospital after he was struck by a car.

Delph is still adjusting to her new life.

On many mornings, she will fetch her cast iron pan and cook bacon and eggs for herself and her housemates. After meals, she can relax on the outdoor patio. She takes hot showers every day, and has the use of a clothes washer and dryer. She can watch TV in the living room. Sometimes, she jumps on the bus and heads downtown, or works on her iPad on her idea for an addiction recovery program based on Biblical themes.

"I don't do drugs or alcohol," she said. "But a lot of homeless people do, and I want to try to help them."

Delph's dream, she said, is to launch that project. But first, with the help of her case managers, she is trying to locate an affordable place to put down roots.

Because of her disability, Delph qualifies for permanent supportive housing. That program allows residents to receive housing and "wraparound" services in exchange for a percentage of their monthly income.

But even with that advantage, Delph said, money will be tight and she likely will need a roommate to help cover costs of rent and other living expenses. She worries about finding the right place, and the right housemate.

"I like it here," she said, looking around her mint green dining room, her cat resting in her lap. "It's very nice. I'm glad I'm inside. I hope it all works out."

If not?

"I guess I'll be going back down to the river," she said with a smile.

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