The Homeless

Sacramento mayor says California must require cities to provide shelter space for homeless

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Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg is calling for an enforceable statewide “right to shelter” mandate that would require communities to have enough shelter space or other housing to accommodate their homeless populations, a strategy modeled after a decades-long program in New York City.

“We have sort of tacitly accepted as a society it’s okay for people to live under bridges or on the river bank while we fix the problem,” Steinberg said Wednesday during a Sacramento Bee livestream conversation on homelessness. “We cannot wait for the long-term housing strategy in the state of California to take effect and to get people inside.”

The “right to shelter” mandate would also establish a new legal requirement that homeless people accept shelter that’s available. The mandate could be created by a court action, like in New York, or more likely would be the result of a state bill in the legislature or executive action by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Steinberg said.

It would include state money that municipalities could use to open shelters or other transitional housing options for the homeless, Steinberg said.

The mandate would likely require hundreds of millions of dollars, and perhaps more than $1 billion. New York spends about $1.5 billion a year to shelter 75,000 people, Steinberg said. California has an estimated 90,000 homeless people.

Municipalities could also use some money they currently spend on police and public works employees who deal with the rising effects of homelessness, such as 911 calls and cleanup, Steinberg said.

“The return and the reward would be 95 percent of California’s unsheltered homeless population indoors with a better chance at reclaiming their lives than they have now,” Steinberg said.

In New York, which has had the mandate since a 1981 court decision, only about 5 percent of 75,000 homeless people are living unsheltered, Steinberg said. Massachusetts and Washington D.C. also have “right to shelter” mandates.

The city of Sacramento is spending $16 million in city money to open hundreds of shelter beds, made available by the city’s Measure U sales tax increase, but many California communities do not have those resources.

Currently, local governments cannot cite people for living outdoors or order them to move unless there is an available shelter bed and the person refuses to be transported to it.

Once there is available shelter, if people camping outdoors do not accept it, cities could again cite them for camping or impose other punishments that have yet to be decided, Steinberg said.

“Once we have the shelter capacity, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that living on the streets is not a civil right, that you have to come indoors,” Steinberg said. “How we enforce that and work on that will be for debate and discussion.”

The Statewide Commission on Homelessness and Supportive Housing, which Steinberg co-chairs, will have those discussions, Steinberg said. The commission will also soon discuss the mandate with Newsom and legislative leaders, Steinberg said.

Newsom’s media office did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Cities across California saw their homeless populations surge in the last two years, a federally-mandated count revealed this summer. Sacramento County saw a 19 percent increase in homelessness, hitting 5,570, while Los Angeles County saw a 12 percent increase, hitting nearly 59,000.

“From one end of the state to the next, with very, very few exceptions, the uptick was palpable and arguably daunting,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who co-chairs the state homeless commission and supports the mandate. “This is a crisis on steroids and we should not acclimate to what could be defined as a new normal.”

The city’s Railroad Drive shelter in north Sacramento permanently housed 164 people and temporarily housed another 100 in its 17 months before it closed April 30.

Unlike other shelters in the area, people were allowed to bring their pets, partners and possessions and were not turned away for having drugs or alcohol in their systems. They also received help finding housing, and received on-site medical and mental health services.

The city is also planning to open a shelter at the Capitol Park hotel downtown next month, as well as large tent-like shelters on Cal Expo property at the southeast end of Ethan Way, and on a Caltrans-owned grassy lot near the corner of X Street and Alhambra Boulevard.

Steinberg also wants to open a shelter in Meadowview, and plans to hold a community meeting there Aug. 12 to discuss potential sites, he said.

The mayor on Dec. 3 asked all eight council members to find sites in each of their districts for 100 shelter beds or more.

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Theresa Clift covers Sacramento City Hall. Before joining The Bee in 2018, she worked as a local government reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Daily Press in Virginia and the Wausau Daily Herald in Wisconsin. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from Central Michigan University.
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