Marcelous Bell, holding his newborn girl in the crook of his arm and with a roof over his head to call his own, is a new man.
By his account, at 18, while he was still a senior in high school in Sacramento, his mother kicked him out of his house after a chaotic upbringing. He was always “different” from his family, he said, but once he was finally “exiled,” and his mother was arrested and sent to jail, Bell was lost – “Where do I go from here?” he wondered.
“From being out there woken up 3 o’ clock in the morning, 2 o’ clock in the morning by the police, just to tell you to leave when you want to sleep, and then it’s so cold outside that your bones are achy,” Bell recalled.
“I’d wake up at 4 o’ clock to catch a train just to ride around for two hours before you go to school,” he said, “and then you’re not going to be able to tell your friends or teachers, because you’re embarrassed or they might think less of you.”
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Couch-surfing with friends and family lasted only so long, he said. He had a “short fuse” and was angry all the time. Though Bell had a loving, long-term girlfriend, his new lifestyle pushed him towards crime, he said. He used to go to Wind Youth Services, but finding a shelter that would accept the young man despite his criminal record proved challenging — until last year, when he was tapped for a new program focused on assisting the county’s costliest and most vulnerable homeless individuals.
One year after Sacramento County launched the $5.1 million program to house and provide wrap-around social services to 250 homeless individuals who were top users of public resources, officials and homeless advocates say their efforts are working.
As of January, 213 of the 250 individuals identified by the county have enrolled in the program, and 209 have been permanently housed.
“It was hell,” Bell said. “But I always knew that if I kept my head in the right place I could make it out.”
A study by county staff found that the group of high-frequency users cost Sacramento County more than $11 million in 2015-16 after breaking down the cost of services such as jail stays, ambulance rides, emergency police response and addiction and mental health treatment.
Pete Taneyhill, the man who used more services than any other homeless person in the agency’s records, cost the county nearly $150,000 a year. With the county’s help, he secured an apartment, a job and a car, and he recently graduated from re-entry court, a criminal justice realignment program, said the county’s program manager Meghan Marshall.
“Without this help, I’d be one of those guys again, out on my bicycle with my backpack full of drug paraphernalia,” Taneyhill previously told The Bee. “I had no idea that my addiction cost the county so much money. At the time, I wouldn’t have cared.”
Marshall said Taneyhill’s success proves that with sustained guidance and treatment while staying in a stable home environment, some experiencing cyclical homelessness can re-establish themselves in the community. Too often, agencies attempt to solve the symptoms of homelessness — addiction, mental health — rather than addressing the “core issue,” said Ben Avey, spokesman for Sacramento Steps Forward, the county’s nonprofit partner agency that helps secure housing and coordinates homeless services.
“They do not have the ability to get other aspects of their life in order until they have a bed to sleep in and a door to lock,” he said. “Once you’re safe and warm, and you’ll be safe and warm for an extended period of time, a lot of things that may have seemed unimaginable may seem possible.”
The county program is modeled after one in Los Angeles County called Housing for Health, which a RAND Corp. report found led to a cost saving of 20 percent for the county, with reductions in emergency room and outpatient visits.
The Los Angeles program doesn’t even target the costliest homeless individuals in the county, said Sarah Hunter, the lead author of the 2017 study. Given those results, she said, it’s not unrealistic that Sacramento County will see a positive financial impact from the program.
“Because they are the highest users,” she said, “once you can get them into a stabilized setting and regulated care, you’re more likely to see these huge reductions in cost.”
“If you look at the bottom line, if you’re saving money and improving the community, it’s a win-win,” she said.
The program was approved in 2017 by the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors as one prong of a major multimillion-dollar, four-part initiative to curb homelessness. The program, called Flexible Supportive Re-Housing, was initially budgeted for $5.1 million to run for 18 months through June 2019.
Marshall said the program will be a permanent fixture of the county’s homelessness efforts, costing about $3.9 million each fiscal year, aided by a big funding boost this year: Sacramento County declared an emergency homeless shelter crisis last year, giving it access to nearly $20 million in state funding to tackle homelessness in collaboration with the city of Sacramento. The county also is set to apply and accept more than $5 million in noncompetitive award funding this year from the state towards the development of permanent supportive housing.
For the past month, Bell, his girlfriend Ja’Meesha Tripplett and now their baby Amelia Bell, less than 2 weeks old, have been living in a two-story tan apartment complex in south Sacramento. Most of the rooms are empty, save for the assortment of baby furniture and necessities strewn about.
Bell, now 21, is hopeful for the future. He’s finally starting to put on weight. He’s happier, calmer. He’s applying to jobs, maybe at a warehouse like where he used to work. Right now, he’s focused on saving enough money to buy a car, and support his burgeoning family.
“To see something like this, it gets you emotional,” said Bell’s case manager, Azzie Thomas, wiping tears from eyes as he looked on. “To see him so young and strive like he’s doing with the baby, it’s amazing. People may look at him like he’s a bad kid, but they don’t know the inside.”
“I don’t want to start crying stop crying,” Bell told Thomas with a smile.