‘This program has got me off the streets.’ From a tent on the river to a Natomas home
They lived outdoors for an average of four years, but some of them were homeless for decades. Nearly 90 percent of them had physical disabilities. Sixty percent had mental illnesses.
Yet 100 people who enrolled in the city's controversial "triage" shelter in North Sacramento have managed to transition to stable housing since the facility opened in early December.
They represent about a third of more than 300 people who have come through the North Sacramento shelter, an innovative "low barrier" facility that does not require sobriety and welcomes partners, possessions and pets.
Emily Halcon, the city's homeless services coordinator, said the percentage of people exiting the shelter to alternate housing is "on par" with other shelters operating in the Sacramento area. But the accomplishment is especially significant for clients of the triage shelter, most of whom were chronically homeless and deeply entrenched in encampments along the American River, she said.
"Considering the short amount of time we have been operating and the types of folks that we're seeing, I think it's pretty impressive what we and our partners have been able to do," Halcon said. Among the shelter participants who have moved into stable housing is a military veteran who lived outdoors for 40 years, said Halcon. Another, Katherine Wahl, told The Bee she was homeless for three decades before finding an apartment through the shelter.
"These stories illustrate exactly what we are trying to accomplish," Halcon said. "Each of these people has a unique story. The shelter and our partners validated each of their experiences and dealt with each of them individually."
According to data gathered by the city, 89 of the 100 people who have found housing through the North Sacramento shelter suffer from a "disabling condition," such as diabetes, heart problems or injuries that hamper mobility. Sixty percent said they have a mental illness. More than 40 percent abuse alcohol or drugs.
The shelter is staffed around the clock by Volunteers of America, and case managers from various organizations are on hand daily to help clients secure identification cards, apply for housing and medical care and obtain counseling and other services designed to put them on a path toward stability. The shelter costs $401,453 a month to operate, a price tag that includes extra police patrols in the surrounding area.
As of last week, a total of 313 people had enrolled in the shelter, and 100 had exited to housing, said Halcon. The facility, which opened in December as a winter shelter, is expected to remain open through August. After that, the city is considering erecting giant "Sprung tents" to serve as permanent shelters in neighborhoods that officials have yet to identify.
Of the people who have left the triage shelter for alternate housing, 47 are living in subsidized homes or apartments, 10 live in units that are not subsidized and are sharing rent with others, and 13 have moved in with family members, Halcon said. The remaining 30 people have temporary housing, such as a transitional living apartment on the Mather Community Campus, and are in line for permanent placement.
Despite such successes, the presence of the triage shelter on Railroad Drive near Del Paso Boulevard has come with costs to businesses and residents of economically depressed North Sacramento, said Larry Glover-Meade, president of the Woodlake Neighborhood Association.
"It's hard to call something that took over 100 people off of the streets and riverbanks and put them into permanent housing a failure," Glover-Meade said. Although neighborhoods in the immediate area of the shelter have experienced "minimal impacts" from having as many as 200 homeless people at a time at the facility, he said, businesses in the area have suffered.
"The business community along Del Paso Boulevard has been significantly impacted" by a growing number of homeless men and women roaming the area who either live at the shelter or are seeking entry, he said. "This is a shame, because it will make the challenging task of creating a thriving business area, one such as the ones in the wealthier areas of the city, even harder."
Glover-Meade said he hopes that Sacramento's mayor "lives up to his repeated promise of having homeless shelters located throughout the city."
"When will the residents of North Natomas, East Sac or the Pocket be asked to help out?" he asked.
Others said the city has failed to properly communicate with the public about the shelter and its residents and has overstated the shelter's successes.
Nancy Kitz, who represents a public interest group that monitors local government, pointed out that the city originally estimated that half of its shelter residents would transition into housing. Housing 33 percent "is more like a failure to attain their goal," she said.
Kitz and Woodlake resident Jane Macaulay said the city and shelter operators failed to abide by a "good neighbor policy" that was supposed to include open houses at the shelter and informal updates at a local coffee shop. "It didn't happen," Kitz said.
"Anyone who wants to see the unmitigated impacts of the shelter need only to drive down Del Paso Boulevard and see the many homeless hanging out. Then they can drive to Railroad Drive and see tents, piles of garbage" immediately across from the shelter, said Kitz.
The triage shelter is part of a broad range of programs pushed by Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who has made curbing homelessness a centerpiece of his administration.
Steinberg pursued the city's Whole Person Care grant, which 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.
The city and other agencies that serve homeless people in the Sacramento area should get a significant boost under the new state budget agreement. Steinberg's communications director, Mary Lynne Vellinga, said the city expects to receive $5.6 million in direct funds, which can be used for homelessness prevention and emergency aid. Sacramento Steps Forward, which oversees homelessness programs operated by nonprofit groups, should receive $12.7 million in funding to address the region's homeless crisis, she said.
A recent census found that homelessness increased in Sacramento County by 30 percent between 2015 and 2017. The census counted 3,665 people living without permanent shelter, but advocates believe the actual number of homeless men, women and children is much higher.