Marcos Bretón

With homeless camps, politicians should listen to local expert

It’s Ryan Loofbourrow’s job to get homeless people off Sacramento’s streets. That means his job is harder than yours. No one thinks he’ll ever fully succeed. The problem will outlast him. Everyone has an opinion, but no one has a solution – just a political agenda.

Loofbourrow is trying to do his job – running Sacramento Steps Forward, the lead agency on homeless services in the county – without becoming mired in politics. In Sacramento, that’s like trying to walk the streets without letting your feet touch the ground. It’s impossible.

For example, the city, led by Councilman Jay Schenirer, is poised to veer away from Loofbourrow’s mission to house homeless people in real housing, and allow some to live in a legalized tent city.

Loofbourrow recently traveled to Seattle to study its city-sanctioned homeless camps with Schenirer and a delegation of city leaders. He said he did not find a useful strategy for helping the homeless among the tent cities. As The Bee’s Ryan Lillis reported, the Seattle camps are designed to transition homeless people into housing, although it’s unclear how effective they’ve been so far.

Instead of debating publicly with those who want to sanction tent cities and defer the hard work of housing people, Loofbourrow has remained a quiet but authoritative voice in the background. It’s not that the executive director is afraid to speak his mind. It’s just that it’s his goal to get Sacramento, the county and surrounding cities behind the idea of more housing for all. He has to be the resource, not the lightning rod.

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Many people support the idea of a homeless camp because it’s likely it will never be in their neighborhood. They can rationalize the idea of letting people sleep in deplorable conditions as a way of doing “something,” even though the idea has no track record of success.

Loofbourrow said he understands why Sacramento officials are panicking and eyeing the idea of a homeless camp. “They have the reality of what they are responding to today,” he said. Officials are increasingly hearing community concerns about homeless people living by the river and in places such as Land Park, where residents were unaccustomed to seeing them. There also has been the sustained protest at City Hall.

Tent camps like the ones in Seattle – self-governed communities where drugs and alcohol are prohibited – are not a good strategy for Sacramento, Loofbourrow said, because the people who would inhabit them could be placed in real housing instead. If you are capable of remaining clean and sober and following rules, Sacramento has the ability to get you rent assistance for a market-rate apartment, he said.

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It’s true that Sacramento has a shortage of housing for some homeless people. There isn’t enough permanent supportive housing for those dealing with the challenges of mental illness, addiction or both. Permanent supportive housing requires case workers to closely monitor the most vulnerable of Sacramento’s homeless population. It’s a program that can last as long as two years before a person is ready to live independently. Subsidized by the federal government, homeless people in permanent supportive housing contribute 30 percent of their incomes to rent. The feds pay the rest and homeless people who qualify can remain in the program indefinitely if they choose.

Loufbourrow said there are between 2,600 and 2,800 beds available to single people and some families in the permanent supportive housing program. That’s not enough to meet demand.

Michele Watts, chief operating officer of SSF, said a shortage of permanent supportive housing will result in approximately 2,000 homeless people waiting for shelter by year’s end. But for homeless people who don’t need as much institutional support, there is more hope. SSF has a program called rapid rehousing, in which case managers contracted by SSF offer rent subsidies to homeless people and help with any concerns from apartment landlords.

The rapid rehousing program is roughly a year old and also is utilized by Sacramento County and the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency. Both agencies partner with SSF.

Much of the work done by SSF in rapid rehousing is persuading landlords to relax their requirements to allow homeless people to move into market-rate apartments – despite histories of bad credit and past evictions. There are nearly 500 housing-subsidy spots available in the SSF system, Watts said.

“It might take several weeks (for placement by SSF), but you would be in an apartment,” she said.

SSF’s capacity to help higher-functioning homeless people raises an important question for Sacramento officials weighing a tent city. If SSF has approximately 500 spots available for rent subsidies, why not put these homeless people into apartments rather than a tent city?

“With the dollars we have, we have the capacity,” Loofbourrow said. “We contract with Volunteers of America, and we would get them placed in interim housing before transitioning them into apartments.”

Still, a tent city plan is gaining momentum. Mark Merin, a lawyer representing advocates for a tent city, said in a March 3 letter to Sacramento City Manager John Shirey that his clients could have a tent city ready to go in April.

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Schenirer recently told The Bee that he and other council members would be working on the issue for the next 30 to 45 days before they even offered recommendations to the city. If that is the case, it could be several weeks after that before the city even voted on the issue. That could take the issue of a homeless camp into May or beyond.

In other words, the process of approving a homeless camp could take the same amount of time SSF would need to move less vulnerable homeless people into subsidized apartments.

What sets the SSF program apart from a homeless camp is that SSF is trying to get people out of homelessness instead of prolonging homelessness. The emphasis is to get people on their feet in 30 to 90 days, though people who need help can get it for up to two years, Loufbourrow said.

It remains to be seen if Sacramento would set a time limit for how long people could remain in a homeless camp, but the Seattle model doesn’t have one. Moreover, a homeless camp goes against a “housing first” trend being adopted by cities across America.

The location of a homeless camp is sure to be controversial. Homeless advocates have identified Del Paso Heights, Oak Park and Meadowview as potential sites. These communities already are saturated by social services, as well as crime and poverty.

In his letter, Merin suggested the first homeless camp go into Schenirer’s district. It’s a safe bet that Schenirer’s Curtis Park constituents, populated by professional people who avidly vote in elections, would not have to deal with a homeless camp. It seems more likely that Oak Park or another neighborhood with less political clout would get tabbed as a homeless camp site by the city.

The program Loofbourrow is building at SSF is more democratic because he is trying to house homeless people in apartments around the county. SSF recently partnered with Rancho Cordova. Loofbourrow is also talking to Folsom, Citrus Heights, and he hopes to partner with Elk Grove as well.

Still youthful looking at 45, with only the tiniest flecks of gray in his goatee, Loofbourrow spends his days – and nights – trying to create a system that prevents people from becoming homeless in the first place. “It ticks me off when people are homeless,” he said. “We should have healthy communities, and we as Americans should not have our citizens living outside.”

SSF is already having success with some subsets of Sacramento’s homeless population. Within months, it will have enough housing to get homeless veterans of the U.S. armed services off the streets. Admittedly, the estimated 668 homeless vets in Sacramento County are a small percentage of the overall homeless population. Still, a federal goal of creating enough housing for those vets is at hand in Sacramento.

“By August or September, we should have equal amount of housing to match the inflow and outflow of homeless veterans,” Loofbourrow said. “We want a system that keeps up with the inflow, and we want to re-create that metric for the entire homeless population.”

Data on the homeless are admittedly tricky, but Loofbourrow hopes that soon his agency will have more accurate ways to measure how many homeless people Sacramento has, how much housing is available for them and how to close the gap between the two numbers.

Right now, he can’t definitely say how big that gap is. Sacramento has roughly 2,600 homeless people on county streets, a number based on a one-night “point-in-time” count from January 2015. Loofbourrow said it’s not fully accurate; SSF estimates that number could be as high as 5,000.

Last year, SSF housed 3,000 homeless people in shelters and market-rate apartments, Loofbourrow said. But when it comes to homelessness, the numbers are never static. People constantly transition in and out of the system.

SSF recently has interviewed roughly 1,600 homeless people. They are working to address their needs and connect them with services. Most will be housed within this year, Loofbourrow said. But while that is going on, hundreds more will get in line every month.

The pressures caused by the need for homeless services are causing anxiety throughout the county. Communities such as Carmichael and Orangevale are experiencing homelessness in a way they never have before. The willingness of city officials to embrace a tent city is the most visible manifestation of policymakers pushed hard to consider measures they had previously dismissed.

It’s understandable and, at its heart, a compassionate reaction. It’s also laudable that four City Council members, the city manager and Sacramento’s police chief all went to Seattle to study the issue. But as Loofbourrow contends, tent cities are not a step forward.

“I’m an advocate for housing and I’m single-minded about that,” he said. “I really believe in housing. (Homelessness) is one of the great social conundrums we face. We know it’s not right, but we don’t know how to respond to it.”

Actually Loofbourrow does know how, maybe better than anyone in Sacramento. It’s just a matter of whether the politicians will listen to him.