City Beat

City claims massive winter homeless shelter has made North Sacramento safer

A controversial winter homeless shelter in North Sacramento so far has brought in more than 260 men and women, most of whom are living with a physical or mental disability and had been staying outdoors near the facility. Meanwhile, crime in the area surrounding the shelter has been cut by nearly 50 percent, according to a new city report released Tuesday.

But the question remains: After more than two months of operation - and with a city-imposed deadline for the shelter's closure just a few weeks away - will the facility remain open longer than originally planned?

Service providers and city police are touting the winter triage homeless shelter on Railroad Drive as a success that has served a homeless population rarely helped by other shelters. The facility has been able to assist hard-to-reach clients because it is open 24 hours a day and allows residents to come in with pets and store their belongings. It also permits men and women to stay together. A third of the people served so far at the shelter have been more than 60 years old.

The shelter costs $401,453 a month to operate, a price tag that includes extra police patrols in the surrounding area. That money also funds crews of homeless individuals that clean garbage from nearby streets as well as portable showers and restrooms.

"It has been a real success," Mayor Darrell Steinberg said Tuesday. "None of it is perfect, and there's always going to be opposition and concern, but the key is we have a plan, and I have a plan for this city and it's real and credible and backed up by real dollars. We are intentionally reaching the hardest (homeless individuals) to serve, and we'll learn and improve along the way."

Not everyone is convinced.

For the first time, a member of the City Council expressed detailed concern with the winter shelter. Councilwoman Angelique Ashby said during a City Council hearing Tuesday night that the amount of public funding being spent each month to operate the shelter is “a lot of money."

She said she would oppose using city general fund dollars to pay for future shelters. The current shelter is paid for entirely by the general fund, which supports most core city services. Ashby added that she supports Steinberg’s campaign to raise $20 million from the private sector for homeless services, money that would expand the city’s shelter system.

In addition, Ashby said she was struck by the conditions at the winter shelter after touring the site, most notably that the showers and bathroom facilities were outdoors and that 90 dogs were being housed in the facility. “There’s a lot of room for improvement in what it feels like to be in that shelter,” she said. “If we’re going to do something like this, we have to be better.”

Some neighborhood leaders told the City Council they believe the shelter has had a positive impact on the area.

Annette Emery of the Gardenland Northgate Neighborhood Association told the City Council her neighbors “are supportive of the shelter” and that residents recognize “it’s inhumane to have people sleeping on the streets in this weather.”

“It’s well-needed and it’s been done quite well,” added Ericka Harden of the Natomas Community Association. “I have seen the difference in the streets, and I believe the numbers prove it.”

A community meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Artisan Building at 1901 Del Paso Blvd. to discuss the facility. After those meetings are held, the city will begin debating whether to keep the shelter open past March 30. Steinberg said he wants city staff to compile a list of options for shelter space beyond the end of March.

Steinberg has indicated he does not want to close the Railroad Drive shelter until a comparable permanent facility is ready to open. But it seems unlikely the city will be ready to open another shelter by the end of March.

City officials sent a letter to Regional Transit in October expressing their interest in acquiring a warehouse on Evergreen Street, adjacent to the Royal Oaks light rail station, for a permanent shelter. That warehouse - in the Woodlake neighborhood - is less than a mile from Railroad Drive.

Regional Transit recently declared the warehouse "surplus," and city officials may submit another letter of interest for the property by the end of March. If that happens, the city and RT will have 90 days to negotiate a deal for the property, meaning the warehouse may not be ready to house a shelter for months.

City officials have abandoned a briefly considered plan to open a small shelter on Florin Road in south Sacramento. The building where the shelter idea was explored is being converted into a charter school.

Steinberg and Councilman Allen Warren - who represents North Sacramento - insist they want to hear from community members about their reactions to the winter shelter, and that it’s too early to declare whether the Railroad Drive facility will remain open beyond the end of March. They also have said it's too early to decide whether the permanent facility will be built on Evergreen Street. However, Steinberg said Tuesday that "it would not be right to turn out 200 people to the streets on a day one month from now."

Asked if he thinks the winter shelter has been successful enough to convince North Sacramento residents that another shelter should be opened nearby, Steinberg replied: "Yes, I do."

Some North Sacramento residents have criticized the city for singling out their neighborhood and for not acting more quickly to open shelters in other parts of the city. Other residents have expressed concerns that the Railroad Drive facility is attracting new homeless individuals to a part of the city that had already been heavily affected by that population.

Police have increased their presence in the neighborhood since the shelter opened, spending $37,500 per month on extra officers assigned to the area. Sacramento police reported a 48 percent drop in crime within a 0.65 mile radius of the shelter during its first two months of operation, compared to the same time period last year. (That radius includes some residential neighborhoods near the shelter, part of Del Paso Boulevard and a section of the American River Parkway.)

The biggest decreases were seen in property crimes, including car break-ins, police said.

However, police were dispatched 107 times to the shelter between Dec. 7 and Feb. 13, according to a Bee analysis of crime data; eight of those police visits resulted in crime reports.

The number of calls reflects a population of people who "need resources and services" beyond what police are able to provide, said Sgt. Vance Chandler, a police spokesman.

"It's not necessarily alarming that we have had so many calls" to the shelter, he said. "Mainly, it shows that we as a police department are trying to be responsive to people who need help."

Of the 107 police calls, 44 made during the shelter's first two months of operation involved checks on reports of "suspicious" subjects or circumstances, according to the data analyzed by The Bee. Eighteen were responses to reported "disturbances," and 10 were for welfare checks. Three calls were for misdemeanor assaults.

The most recent assault occurred Feb. 17, and was triggered by a domestic dispute between two shelter residents, Chandler said. The victim, a woman, "sustained minor injuries," he said, and police arrested a man in the incident.

On Feb. 20, police responded to a report of a dead body at the shelter, records show.

The woman, 62, rose from bed early in the morning and collapsed, shelter operators reported. Coroner's records indicate that the death was from natural causes.

Bee staff writer Phillip Reese contributed to this report.

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