‘This program has got me off the streets.’ From a tent on the river to a Natomas home
At night, when Elizabeth Bise hears rain pouring down outside the window of her new apartment, she can’t help but cry tears of relief, remembering how different her life was just a few months ago on the streets of Sacramento.
“I cry and say a prayer of joy. I paid my dues,” said the 45-year-old, who had spent more than five years living in various spots between Carmichael and downtown Sacramento. “I was outside alone for a very, very long time. ... I haven’t slept through the night, one whole night, yet. It’s been such an adjustment.”
Bise is one of 416 people who were permanently housed in recent months through one of four expanded county homelessness initiatives. The programs are paid for by $10.3 million in annual county funding that began in October of 2017, according to Ann Edwards, director of Sacramento County’s Department of Health Assistance.
It’s proof, Edwards says, that their approach to stemming the county’s growing homelessness crisis is working: Get as many in need shepherded into temporary shelters, even those with pets, mental health issues, addictions, belongings or close friends they wish to live with. Those used to be issues that could otherwise disqualify homeless people from traditional housing programs. Once they are in a shelter, the county connects them with a case manager who can help them get permanently housed.
The county’s most recent biennial homeless census, released July 2017, found 3,665 people living without permanent shelter, at the time the highest number recorded, and a figure that homeless advocates in the region say is likely to increase in January, when the next census is conducted. Still, Edwards said the recently released numbers of those housed is a positive sign that the county is on the right track.
“The model is really an outstanding model,” she said. “Although it may seem like a drop in the bucket, that’s 416 fewer people — many of whom were homeless for a long time — in permanent housing.”
While staying at one of the county’s temporary shelters, individuals are able to secure Social Security cards, state IDs, cellphones and other basic necessities with the help of county-funded social workers, said Mike Callahan, program director at Hope Cooperative, a contracted nonprofit that provides case management services.
Residents can then apply for housing vouchers or Social Security benefits, Callahan said, and be placed in permanent housing through Sacramento Self-Help Housing, which leases private homes and apartments, sometimes at no cost to the newly housed tenant as they work to stablize their income and routine.
“Literally nothing is off the table,” Callahan said. “We are there to meet the client where they’re at.”
When Lashanda McCauley, 33, became pregnant with her sixth child earlier this year, she decided to go to a county shelter and was quickly connected with a case manager. She had spent about four years homeless, mostly living outside near the levee along Garden Highway, her children living either with their father or in group homes.
She moved with three of her kids into her new North Sacramento home in June, paid for by the county as she focuses on staying sober, putting her family first and applying for jobs.
“I have a three-bed, two-and-a-half bath house, two-car garage, an upstairs, downstairs,” she said with pride. Asked if she would’ve been able to secure a home without the county negotiating and advocating for her, she laughed. “Oh heck no,” she said. Landlords, “they took one look at me and say, ‘Ha, sorry no.’ “
The county initiatives are set to get another boost of funding next year.
In October, Sacramento County declared an emergency homeless shelter crisis, allowing it to unlock nearly $20 million in state funding in collaboration with the city of Sacramento. And earlier this month, the Sacramento Board of Supervisors approved a plan to apply and accept more than $5 million in noncompetitive award funding from the state towards the development of permanent supportive housing.
Despite the positive trends and increased funding, Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, said both are still “not even close to getting to scale” given the thousands that remain homeless throughout the county.
A federal court ruled in September that cities cannot punish homeless people for sleeping outside if no shelter beds are available to them. While county park rangers no longer issue illegal camping citations to individuals, citations for other activities typically targeting homeless individuals — littering, dogs off leashes, tying objects to public property and or using shopping carts in park facilities — continue to be issued, according to county data released in October.
The total rate of citations issued after the federal court ruling is up, as well as the number of total camps cleared and cleaned, according to county data — 797 camps in November, more than any other month this year. Erlenbusch homelessness is still basically criminalized for many who are still unable to get into shelters or permanent housing, despite expanded county programs.
“It’s great to have families and women and youth being targeted more, but that’s a fifth of the need,” Erlenbusch said.
Bise, who moved into her new apartment on Halloween, said she knows how lucky she is to have her own room, with a shower she can use whenever she wants. She said she’s been sober since April, and hopes to volunteer on day at one of the homeless shelters she used to go through.
“It’s been very positive,” she said. “They made sure I got into housing. Everybody in the whole situation — they do help you out, and they do help you to stay on course and their program does work.
“After five years on the streets, right now I’m just laying, watching TV and it feels very good,” she added.