The Homeless

Sacramento County declares homeless shelter crisis. Here’s what that means

Here’s a look inside the North Sacramento homeless shelter

The first 50 of about 200 homeless people occupying a shelter on Railroad Drive in North Sacramento arrived Friday, Dec. 8. The shelter has sparked controversy among nearby residents and business owners.
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The first 50 of about 200 homeless people occupying a shelter on Railroad Drive in North Sacramento arrived Friday, Dec. 8. The shelter has sparked controversy among nearby residents and business owners.

The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors took the unprecedented step of declaring an emergency homeless shelter crisis Tuesday, allowing it to work with the city to apply for nearly $20 million in new state funding.

The money would be used to address the growing problem of unsheltered people in the region as winter approaches, and is part of a coordinated effort between the two local governments that has been in the works for months.

The Sacramento City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to pursue the additional funding as well, though it stopped short of declaring an immediate shelter crisis — a designation that means a significant number of residents are without housing and that the situation represents a health and safety threat.

As California grapples with widespread strains on homeless services and housing, several cities in the state have already declared a shelter crisis, including Berkeley, Oakland and San Jose. The county’s shelter crisis declaration will last one year, and will not be extended unless authorized by the board.

The votes are the first step in pursuing part of a state approved allocation of more than $553 million in one-time funding to 11 cities in need of emergency housing solutions, including Sacramento.

Using those state funds, the city, county and local agencies plan a major expansion of emergency services and housing programs starting in early 2019 — a new triage shelter that can serve more than 200 people, 40 additional beds at county “scattered-site” shelters, increasing family shelter capacity, rental subsidies and the creation of a “host home” program that would connect homeless youths to families willing to house them on a short-term basis, among other measures.

The majority of the money — $12.7 million — would go to the county to be administered by Sacramento Steps Forward, its nonprofit partner agency. The city would receive $5.6 million, and an additional $1.6 million would be available for housing and community programs including rental assistance.

“It’s a very comprehensive and aggressive plan that I think will make a big difference,” said Anne Moore, interim chief executive officer of Sacramento Steps Forward. “We’re ready to roll up our sleeves and work as hard as we can to breed success.”

A census conducted on a single night last year counted 3,665 people living on the streets in Sacramento County, an increase of 30 percent from 2015. The city and county during the past year have significantly altered their approaches to sheltering homeless people, targeting the most vulnerable among them and offering a wide variety of services designed to steer them toward permanent housing.

A large “triage” shelter in North Sacramento established last December is perhaps the most dramatic example of the new approach. It was initially designed as a winter emergency facility, but has been open for nearly a year. The city is now looking for locations to place up to three large, permanent tent shelters that also would offer “wraparound” services, which could be supported in part by the new state funds.

The Board of Supervisors vote was also unanimous, but Supervisor Don Nottoli raised concerns about the funding being a one-time block grant, and if programs begun with the money would be sustainable beyond the expected two-year period of implementation.

“We certainly will work with state folks to say, ‘Let’s keep something good going,’” said Cindy Cavanaugh, Sacramento County’s director of homeless initiatives following the meeting.

Emily Halcon, the city’s homeless services coordinator, at a special meeting on homelessness Tuesday, urged the city to continue its “housing first” approach to sheltering, removing potential barriers for clients who have addictions, mental health concerns or other problems. She also said the city should continue to provide intensive “case management” services to help shelter guests obtain necessary documents, counseling and other services, and ultimately housing.

Currently, Halcon said, only 21 percent of people who leave shelters in the area go to permanent housing. Part of the reason, homeless advocates believe, is that shelters are serving people who have been homeless longer and who have significant barriers to finding jobs and housing.

Nearly 40 percent of people served by area shelters have been homeless for a year or more, compared to 18 percent in 2016, statistics show.

“With these longer terms of homelessness, people are more disabled and vulnerable,” Halcon said in a report prepared for the city council. “The combined challenges of housing people with significant disabilities and the constrained housing market have reduced exits to housing.”

The North Sacramento triage shelter, a project championed by Mayor Darrell Steinberg, sparked a spirited debate at Tuesday’s special meeting. Steinberg described it as “a great success,” and agreed with Halcon that the city should make it a priority to focus on shelters that accept people regardless of issues that may have prevented them from finding beds in the past.

Others on the council questioned the low-barrier approach and its effectiveness.

At a cost of about $400,000 a month, the shelter is too expensive and its goal of finding permanent housing for most of its guests has so far proved elusive, said council member Larry Carr. Halcon said 600 people have come through the facility, and 150 of them have exited to more stable housing.

“I question whether the city should even be in the shelter business,” he said. “With this much revenue involved, there may be other things we can do” to better address homelessness. “Because I don’t think this is working.”

Carr said the city should focus on people who are eager to change their ways and better their lives. “If they don’t want to cooperate, if they don’t want to give up their drugs and their pit bulls ... move them along,” he said.

Council member Angelique Ashby said she has “a distaste” for the North Sacramento shelter, with its dormitory style beds and portable toilets and showers. “I think we can do better than that,” she said.

Ashby vehemently argued for the city to put resources into St. John’s Program for Real Change, which currently has 56 available beds but is without the money to open them to guests. St. John’s would be ineligible to receive the forthcoming state money because it does not employ the “housing first” approach.

“They have 56 open beds,” Ashby said. “They have hundreds of people on their waiting list. I think we need to fund these beds.”

The council agreed to consider doing so in the future if funding can be procured.

While the city didn’t declare it’s own shelter emergency Tuesday, it must do so before receiving the funds. That vote is scheduled for Oct. 30.

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