Here’s what it’s like trying to count Sacramento’s homeless at night
Even as the city and county of Sacramento pour millions of dollars into ending homelessness, a count this year found 1,905 more people living on the streets, in cars or in shelter beds since 2017, raising the estimated number of homeless people countywide to 5,570.
The federally mandated count, conducted every two years and released Wednesday by homeless nonprofit Sacramento Steps Forward, is the highest ever recorded number of people living without permanent housing in Sacramento County.
It marks a roughly 52 percent jump in homelessness compared to two years ago, when the survey found 3,665 homeless people living in the county. Researchers behind the count say a more accurate increase estimate is about 19 percent when accounting for this year’s new methodology, which doubled the area covered and tripled the number of volunteers conducting the count.
Among the 5,570 estimated homeless people in Sacramento County are veterans, teens and families. Some are mentally ill or struggle with addiction. Almost half are people of color, with black and American Indian people “disproportionately represented” compared to the overall county population. The vast majority are born or from the Sacramento region.
Some are like Sara Bell, who was living in south Sacramento with her husband until about four months ago, when she said a landlord-tenant deal went sour and the couple were left with $2,000 in counterfeit bills. She’s been sleeping in a tent near the American River Parkway ever since, paying almost $600 a month for storage units.
Others are like William Mercer, a West Sacramento native who has been living on the streets for 10 years. Finding a job has been impossible. “I can’t read or write,” he said. “Some people just come on hard times.”
Overall, Sacramento has about 36 homeless people for every 10,000 residents, the report found — lower than the per capita rate in San Francisco and Los Angeles counties, but higher than San Joaquin, San Diego and Orange counties. A majority, about 59 percent, have been homeless for more than a year.
About 70 percent of homeless people in Sacramento County, about 3,900, were unsheltered, living outside in tents, under highway overpasses, or in vehicles. In 2017, 56 percent were unsheltered.
In all, between 10,000 to 11,000 residents in Sacramento County will likely experience homelessness during 2019 based on this year’s snapshot findings, according to the report.
Other findings about the 5,570 people counted in the point-in-time survey include:
▪ About 30 percent were “chronically homeless” — homeless for more than a year or repeatedly, while struggling with a disabling condition such as mental illness, substance abuse or physical disability. That percentage was essentially unchanged from 2017, but among the unsheltered population alone, the percentage of chronically homeless decreased.
▪ 93 percent of the unsheltered were originally from Sacramento or are long-term residents. Seven percent said they moved to the county within the last year.
▪ 30 percent of those sleeping outdoors were over 50, and 20 percent were 55 or older.
▪ 20 percent of the homeless were families with children. There were 372 families with kids counted, and 688 kids counted. About half were sleeping outdoors.
▪ 9 percent identified as LGBT
▪ 8 percent, or 415, were “transitional age youths” between 18 and 25.
▪ 12 percent, or 667, were veterans.
The findings are sobering news for Sacramento County and its cities, which have collectively spent tens of millions in state and local dollars toward getting people off streets and into temporary and permanent housing with wrap-around social services.
Though the county found permanent housing for hundreds of homeless people in 2018, many more remain unsheltered or have since slid into homelessness. It’s a situation that continues to leave officials “frustrated and depressed,” said Sacramento County Board of Supervisors Chair Patrick Kennedy.
“We continue to put good resources towards good programs, and we’re not seeing the results we’d like to see, there’s no question about that,” he said.
The report follows similar results from point-in-time counts across California, as municipalities and officials struggle to stanch the growth of the homeless population, fueled in part by a lack of affordable housing.
Over the last two years, Alameda County saw a 43 percent increase in homelessness, with more than 8,000 people homeless. In the same period, Orange County experienced a 42 percent jump of about 2,000 people, and Los Angeles County saw homelessness swell 12 percent, to nearly 59,000 countywide.
In the city of Sacramento
A potential bright spot in the report is that the percentage of unsheltered chronically homeless — considered among the most vulnerable — decreased. In 2017, 39 percent of people sleeping outdoors were chronically homeless, which dropped to 31 percent in 2019.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg said the report shows there is much more work to do, but called that decrease a sign of early success.
The report “absolutely affirms the direction” of county and city initiatives over the last two years,” Steinberg said, especially as the total homeless population grows. About 73 percent of the 5,570 live in the city of Sacramento, the report found.
Steinberg, who has pledged to get 2,000 people off the streets by 2020, has focused the city on building many new large shelters, where people can bring their pets, partners and possessions, are not turned away from having drugs or alcohol in their systems, and can receive help finding housing. The shelters target those who have been on the streets the longest.
“If we continue to address the problem of chronic homelessness by investing in low-barrier triage and enhance our partnership with the county around mental health services and build more affordable housing,” Steinberg said, “we can reduce the percentage and numbers of people in this county who are chronically homeless.”
The city has set aside about $36 million to open several new large “rehousing shelters” in the next two years, including about $16 million in city money, about $12 million in state money and about $8 million in private money Steinberg is raising.
Steinberg in December asked all eight City Council members to find spots in their districts for at least 100 shelter beds, mostly modeled after the city’s Railroad Drive shelter, which permanently closed April 30. That shelter permanently housed 164 people over about 17 months.
The city has not yet opened additional shelters, but plans to open one at the downtown Capitol Park Hotel in August. The city also plans to open at least one additional large shelter by the end of the year, Steinberg has said.
In Sacramento County
For the last two years, Sacramento County has been pouring $10.3 million into an annual campaign to end homelessness, funding several family shelters, 75 beds scattered across the county, and permanently housing more than 400 people last year, including more than 200 of the county’s costliest homeless people. That’s on top of millions the county already pays toward general homeless services through various department budgets.
“A lot of what we’re doing, we’re just now starting to see the impact,” Kennedy said. “We’re kidding ourselves if we thought it was going to be something that was going to be a quick fix.”
Last fall, Sacramento County declared an emergency homeless shelter crisis, allowing it to secure nearly $20 million in state funding in conjunction with the city of Sacramento. It later accepted another $5 million from the state to built permanent supportive housing. And this month, the county was awarded a $12.7 million state loan to fund two housing projects with support services for people with mental illness in the city of Sacramento and in Citrus Heights.
It’s these wrap-around services — access to addiction treatment, benefit checks, health care, identification cards and more — that advocates and local official say are critical to ensuring those who are housed stay housed.
This year’s count found that among unsheltered people, 26 percent had a debilitating cognitive or physical impairment, 21 percent had a severe psychiatric condition such as severe depression or schizophrenia, and 9 percent reported alcohol or drug use that prevented them from keeping a job or stable housing.
“You can’t just provide housing and put someone under a roof, and dust off your hands and say, ‘Problem solved,’” said Supervisor Sue Frost.
Issues still plague the regional effort to end homelessness. A major homeless nonprofit will likely lose up to 90 beds, a dining hall and a culinary training from its Mather Community Campus in Rancho Cordova this year after losing $1 million worth of state and federal funding.
Though most officials and experts expected the number of homeless people in the county to increase, some are wary that even the new data set conceals the true scope of homelessness. Supervisor Phil Serna called the count a “cursory snapshot” surveying two nights out of two years.
“While I understand its utility is as a means for HUD (the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development) to better understand the nature and magnitude of our homeless population, we all know it grossly undercounts the actual number of people suffering homelessness in our community,” Serna said in an email.
Though the raw data indicate a roughly 52 percent jump in homelessness in the county, officials believe the 2017 survey significantly underestimated the number of unhoused people.
The 19 percent figure accounts for changes in the methodology to this year’s count, which canvassed twice the area over two January nights instead of one; used three times the number of volunteers, at about 900; and interviewed four times more homeless people compared to the last count, at about 550.
Affordable housing called key
Almost half the homeless people interviewed during the count cited the lack of affordable housing as a key area where Sacramento County could do better.
“We can’t say (what) is the cause for this increase” in homelessness, said Sacramento State professor Arturo Baiocchi, who assisted with the survey analysis. “But we do think that these issues are probably linked to affordable housing.”
In Sacramento County, 30 percent of renters are overburdened, spending more than 50 percent of their income on rent and putting themselves at risk for homelessness, Baiocchi said.
Sacramento also experienced one of the highest rent increases in the state last year, with only a fraction of housing-unit building permits going toward homes or apartments that someone earning roughly minimum wage could afford.
Steinberg said the report affirms that the city and county need to quickly increase efforts to spur more affordable housing.
“It is not enough to just address the plight of those who have been out on the streets for a year or more,” Steinberg said. “That’s crucial. It’s also stemming the flow and tide of people who are becoming homeless.”
Using a portion of new Measure U sales tax money, the city is planning to issue bonds, partly to create a $100 million affordable housing trust fund. The funds would be used for “gap financing” to spark the construction of thousands of units.
“It’s incumbent on us to get that bond done and get to work because that’s what this report is telling us,” Steinberg said.