The Homeless

Police called nearly 800 times to a Sacramento homeless shelter. Will new shelters be safer?

Sacramento police responded to nearly 800 calls made from in and around a north Sacramento homeless shelter during the 17 months the facility was open – an average of about one and a half calls per day, a Sacramento Bee analysis of police data found.

While city officials stressed that overall crime declined in the area while the shelter at 2040 Railroad Drive was open, calls for homeless-related incidents increased roughly 30 percent. About 97 percent of calls for police service to the shelter address were “founded,” meaning law enforcement determined the request was justified.

At least 240 calls – the largest share – were for suspicious activity, vehicles or people. Disturbances accounted for 127 calls. Assaults, whether misdemeanors or felonies, made up 54 of the calls. At least 21 of the calls cited an incident involving a “mental” person, suggesting a mental illness may have been related. Seven calls contained references to weapons.

Calls about property crimes were less common. There were four calls related to robberies and no requests pertaining to burglaries or motor vehicle thefts.

In its public records request, The Bee asked for police “check ups” to be excluded, though some calls appear to be less serious, such as 20 “errand” calls and 50 “welfare check” calls.

The Bee’s public records request did not include overall police call volume at 2040 Railroad Drive before the shelter opened, when the building was an empty warehouse.

Calls for homeless-related incidents in the .65-mile radius around the shelter grew from 983 in 2017, before the shelter opened, to 1,250 in 2018, when the shelter was operating, an increase of about 30 percent, according to police data.

Philip Mangano, former homelessness czar for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said the call volume was high, even for low-barrier shelters such as the facility on Railroad Drive, where guests were not screened for drugs or alcohol in their systems and were permitted to bring their pets, partners and possessions.

“I’ve worked with low-barrier programs at various places around the country, and that’s a high number of calls,” Mangano said.

Although he would like to see calls reduced, Mayor Darrell Steinberg pointed out that a long list of crimes decreased in the immediate area after the Railroad Drive shelter opened.

“I think that crime went down is the most noteworthy statistic here,” Steinberg said. He stressed that point at a recent community meeting in Meadowview where he was trying to convince the community to support the shelter.

Crimes including assaults, stolen vehicles, theft, vandalism, drug offenses and trespassing decreased from 377 in 2017 to 332 in 2018, a decline of about 12 percent, according to police department data. The shelter opened in early December 2017. The 0.65-mile radius where crimes decreased included a business park, a mobile home park, and sections of the Woodlake and Gardenland neighborhoods.

An estimated 5,570 homeless people are living in Sacramento County on any given night, according to a federally-mandated biannual count released in July, a 19 percent increase from 2017. Citywide, police have responded to more than 24,000 homeless-related calls for service between Jan. 1 and Aug. 5, according to police data. Of those calls, 4,874 were in Councilman Jeff Harris’ district, which includes the Railroad Drive shelter, the American River, East Sacramento and the River District, an industrial area north of downtown with a high concentration of homeless service organizations and shelters.

“The calls are always a concern, but the calls are occurring now,” Steinberg said. “Everything has to be compared with what’s going on now and what’s going on now is unacceptable. There are always going to be calls, but this is a difficult population. I would rather have them under a roof getting help.”

Of the 658 people who spent time at Railroad, 164 landed in permanent housing, according to data from the city. Another 100 were placed in temporary housing – including other shelters and board and care facilities.

Police calls spiked in July

Requests for the police to the shelter jumped in July 2018, when 100 calls were made in that month alone, the data shows. At least 11 calls made that July were related to a potential misdemeanor or felony assault. The calls declined significantly in 2019, when the shelter decreased its capacity from 200 to 100 beds, and limited the number of dogs allowed.

“When they moved to a 100-bed facility, it’s not surprising the number (of calls) dropped dramatically because that’s a far more reasonable number of people to work with,” Mangano said.

The 779 total calls were only police 911 calls, and did not include fire and EMS calls, said Capt. Keith Wade, spokesman for the Sacramento Fire Department.

“Whenever you have a high concentration of people who are homeless, calls to that area will increase,” Wade said.

The city is opening two shelters modeled after Railroad Drive in North Oak Park and Meadowview in the coming months. Those will be 100 beds each, but will be located in more residential areas than Railroad. Another shelter is now accepting homeless guests in the historic Capitol Park Hotel at Ninth and L streets downtown.

Councilwoman Angelique Ashby and Councilman Larry Carr have raised concerns that more shelters modeled after Railroad Drive will not be appropriate for areas where people are living nearby. When they learned from a Bee reporter about the call volume, their concerns grew, they said.

“In looking at the call volume and the nature of calls, there has to be a conversation on whether or not shelters of this size that are deemed ‘low barrier’ are appropriate for neighborhoods,” Ashby said, adding she thinks the City Council and public should have been given the call data before voting to approve more shelters Aug. 29.

The shelter planned to open this winter on Meadowview Road next to the Pannell Community Center, across the street from an apartment complex and single-family homes, will serve exclusively women and children, but will still be “low barrier.” Ashby and Carr raised concerns about placing children in a low-barrier shelter.

“The idea that you’re gonna have police and fire sirens going down Meadowview Road blaring to the shelter just reinforces the notion that these shelters do not belong in neighborhoods,” Carr said.

Harris, whose district included the Railroad shelter, said many of the 779 calls were not for incidents inside the shelter itself, but right outside. The shelter was adjacent to a levee along Steelhead Creek, where homeless have been camping for years.

Shelter residents were provided three meals a day, but people continued to feed dinner to homeless who were camping on the nearby levee. In addition, drug dealers often congregated in the area, mostly selling methamphetamine, Harris said.

“It is 100 percent imperative that we do not allow street feeding or drug dealing at any of the shelters we stand up,” Harris said. “It was a frustration to me we didn’t curtail all that behavior immediately, but it wasn’t in our face.”

More funding needed?

If funding for extra enforcement is not already included in the millions of dollars the city has allocated to open new shelters, Harris suggested dipping into the general fund budget, which pays for most basic city services.

Steinberg said he supports Harris’ request to cut down on street feedings near shelters, but noted feeding and drug dealing was occurring in the area for a long time prior to the shelter opening.

“I support strongly Jeff Harris’s calls to reduce the well-intentioned but problematic street feeding,” Steinberg said. “And I’m for, if it’s necessary, drug enforcement zones in and around any of these shelters.”

Homeless activist and civil rights attorney Mark Merin said city officials should not ban feeding outside shelters, or anywhere. The new shelters will house hundreds, but not the thousands who are homeless in the city.

“It’s ridiculous to associate providing food to people as a basis for increased police presence,” Merin said. “They should be applauding the voluntary nature of those who come in with big hearts and try to actually help and work with those who are less fortunate.”

Carr’s south Sacramento district received 962 homeless-related police calls from Jan. 1 through Aug. 5. He said he worries while most of the district could see a relief of homeless calls when the new shelter opens, the street where the shelter is opening could see a big increase in police activity.

“It just reinforces the notion that the calls for service we’re receiving across the district will now be focused in one area,” Carr said.

Mangano, who is on a statewide homeless commission Steinberg is leading, said placing people off the streets directly into housing creates far fewer police calls than shelters. Steinberg said many homeless individuals need substance abuse and mental health treatment before they can enter housing and that the city is years away from having the available permanent housing stock to house thousands of homeless.

“Of course we need to do more on permanent housing,” Steinberg said. “It’s not an either/or. The minute we get into an either/or, we’re all losers.”

This story was changed on Sept. 11 to reflect that The Bee did not request overall police call volume at 2040 Railroad Drive prior to the building becoming a homeless shelter.

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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.