With a ‘woo-hoo’, Mayor Steinberg announces plan to keep Railroad Drive homeless shelter open
For at least seven months, the city of Sacramento has searched without luck for locations to open new homeless shelters, scouring parcels of land it owns and private properties for suitable places to put more facilities before winter.
Late last week, with cold weather moving in, Mayor Darrell Steinberg said an existing triage shelter currently housing up to 200 people in North Sacramento will need to remain open in coming months while city leaders continue their debate about where and how to house the city’s unsheltered population.
Steinberg said that debate needs to include a plan to put shelters across the city rather than clumping them in low-income neighborhoods, and he has asked council members to commit to housing at least 100 homeless people in each of their districts next year, either in scattered small residential shelters or larger facilities.
“It must be a fair approach. It shouldn’t just be one area of the city,” Steinberg said in an interview with The Bee on Thursday night. He publicly announced the plan during a news conference outside City Hall on Monday, feet away from homeless people who were bundled up and lying down on the cement.
The city’s current triage shelter on Railroad Drive in North Sacramento opened last December and was originally slated to close at the end of May. Its operation has been extended multiple times, despite opposition from some neighbors.
Steinberg also said he would like three of the new facilities to be “Sprung” shelters, similar in size to Railroad Drive, and be open by the end of 2019. Sprung shelters are semi-permanent, tent-like buildings that can be erected in a matter of weeks.
The name refers to the manufacturer Sprung, which offers “tensioned fabric structures” for a variety of uses, from military bases to churches and homeless shelters. The Sprung structure model has been credited with helping to reduce the homeless population in San Diego.
Steinberg said in May he planned to open a Sprung structure on city-owned property by September that would have sheltered up to 200 homeless individuals, and eventually planned on opening three such sites to house up to 600 people. Previously, he said the tents were a key element of his promise to get 2,000 people off of the streets by 2020. Steinberg reiterated that goal Thursday.
“I refuse to continue to preside over modest success,” Steinberg said. “We’ve helped hundreds, and now it’s time to turn it into thousands.”
But the city so far has been unable to find any locations that meet both the technical requirements of the Sprung tents and has neighborhood support.
When the city was unable to come up with shelter sites this summer, Steinberg raised private funds through Sutter Health and other sources to extend the Railroad Drive operation through August. Recently, the mayor said he had raised additional private funds from UC Davis to keep the facility open through Dec 31. The shelter costs about $400,000 per month to operate, including “wraparound” services such as mental health treatment.
Steinberg said the shelter would now likely remain open until July, and possibly for a full year.
The lease to extend the Railroad Drive shelter again is not yet signed, and the council still has to vote on it, likely on Dec. 18, Steinberg said. That vote will include approving where the funds to continue operations will come from – an issue that remains unanswered.
“We have to have a very serious and open discussion with the council and with the community about funding,” Steinberg said.
To keep the Railroad Drive shelter open, Steinberg said the city made a six-month agreement with City of Trees Ventures, which has a long-term lease to use the building for cannabis cultivation, distribution and manufacturing. The lease holders previously told the city they would not continue to extend their sublease for the shelter operations, Steinberg said, but have verbally agreed to the additional months.
Michael Wachtel, CEO and co-founder of City of Trees Ventures, said his company will not charge the city more per month than it’s paying for December.
For a six week period from Dec. 1 though mid-January, the lease and services for the shelter are costing $433,546, mostly paid for by UC Davis Medical Center, according to a city staff report. Of that, the city is paying City of Trees $66,890.
Steinberg said his fellow City Council members are amenable to the idea of each committing to housing at least 100 homeless people in their districts, and he expects them to make their suggestions for shelter locations public in coming months. The council will discuss those proposals in an upcoming meeting, though no date has been set, he said.
Steinberg said some council members may propose multiple smaller facilities in their districts, a more palatable alternative to some communities than a single large facility.
“I want to empower my colleagues to help determine what is the best approach in each of our districts,” Steinberg said.
“Scattered site” shelters, which Steinberg suggested as a possibility, are a model being implemented across the county, and predominately focus on using single-family homes to house about five people as roommates, said Emily Halcon, coordinator of the city’s homeless services.
Steinberg said he made the blanket request to all council members partly to address complaints from North Sacramento residents that their neighborhood is the only one with a city shelter. The Railroad Drive facility has caused consternation with some residents in the nearby residential Woodlake neighborhood, who have voiced concerns about having the large facility nearby.
Allen Warren, councilman for North Sacramento, and Larry Carr, councilman for South Sacramento, have long made similar arguments that shelter options have been targeted at low-income communities, while wealthier areas have few or no shelter options.
“I think it’s really unfair for any particular district to have the burden of the homeless shelters,” said Warren. “So I think a citywide approach is fair and equitable.”
City Council members who spoke with The Bee said they were working on plans, but no new large facilities are likely to open until at least spring. They were tight-lipped about details.
Carr said he has suggested paved vacant lots near either the Meadowview light rail station in his district or the Florin light rail station in Councilman Jay Schenirer’s district as locations for Sprung shelters. But Carr said he was also adamant that shelter options must be spread through other neighborhoods.
“Even though I offered, that offer is only good if we have shelters in other areas,” Carr said.
Councilman Jeff Harris, in whose district the current triage shelter is, said shelters are controversial wherever they go, but opening multiple sites at once might help.
“All my constituents want me to deal with the homeless issue and all of my constituents don’t want (a shelter) to be anywhere near them,” Harris said.
Harris said he is always looking for sites citywide, and has at least one idea for a site in his district, but is not yet sharing it.
Schenirer said he is willing to house more than 100 beds in his district, which includes Curtis Park and Oak Park. He plans to announce potential sites this winter, after he puts out a survey and holds public meetings in early January where residents can walk through the sites, he said.
“I have in my district about three to four sites we’re looking at as potential sites, but what we want to do is work with the community so everyone knows where they are, what the ups and downs of each of them are,” Schenirer said during the news conference.
Councilman Rick Jennings said he plans to announce potential sites within the next 60 days, after talking to residents.
Steve Hansen, who represents downtown and Land Park, is asking for help from constituents to find existing structures that could work for shelters, such as warehouses and apartment buildings, he said.
Hansen said he wants to know how much money is available for the new shelters before announcing sites, and is planning public meetings similar to Schenirer’s, he said.
Councilman Eric Guerra said he is supportive of the idea of a shelter in his district, but does not have a location yet.
Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, who represents Natomas, said in February she would oppose using city general fund dollars to pay for future shelters. Ashby did not return a call seeking comment.
Jennings said while he supports Steinberg’s plans, he wants to come up with a way to shelter more people this winter, but is unsure how to do that.
“We need more (shelters). There may be an opportunity for us to do some things in the next two months,” Jennings said.
A census conducted on a single night in 2016, the most recent available survey, found 3,665 people living outside in Sacramento County, an increase of 30 percent from 2015. The homeless population is also spending longer without shelter. 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.
Railroad Drive had sheltered more than 600 people as of early November, and more than 30 percent who have left are no longer homeless, Halcon said.
The Railroad Drive shelter is typically at capacity, but its capacity could soon shrink.
The shelter maximized its space by using bunk beds, but many residents cannot sleep on the top bunk because they are prone to seizures or have other physical or mental disabilities, said Christie Holderegger, spokeswoman for Volunteers of America, which contracts with the city to run the shelter.
The shelter now has cots, which take more room, and could reduce the shelter’s capacity to 100 or 150, Holderegger said.
The shelter stopped accepting people in mid-November as it prepared to close, Holderegger said. As of Nov. 29, according to city data, 156 people were staying there.
The shelter is a low-barrier triage facility, meaning it is open 24/7, provides three meals a day and allows people to bring their pets, partners and belongings. It also provides medical services, helps residents get a state identification card, and helps them remove other barriers they face in finding permanent housing.
The new shelters will also be low-barrier triage, Steinberg said.
Eventually, Steinberg would like to see people staying in triage centers an average of four months before finding more permanent housing, which frees up space for new people in the shelters.
“That’s how we get to the volume issue,” Steinberg said.
In October, the county took the unprecedented step of declaring an emergency homeless shelter crisis. The city followed suit weeks later. The declarations allow the governments, along with local nonprofit Sacramento Steps Forward, to receive about $20 million in new state funding to address the issue. The county will receive the bulk of those funds — $12.7 million. The city will administer about $7.7 million.
The city’s declaration took effect Saturday, and the city will start receiving the money in February, said Halcon.