Opinion

The mayor is fed up: 5 key points from Steinberg about homeless crisis in Sacramento

‘Let’s make news:’ Hear Mayor Steinberg call on California to declare homeless a right to shelter

In a conversation with Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton, Mayor Darrell Steinberg reveals that he will push California to implement a right to shelter for homeless people and a legal obligation to enforce it.
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In a conversation with Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton, Mayor Darrell Steinberg reveals that he will push California to implement a right to shelter for homeless people and a legal obligation to enforce it.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg made news during his one-hour live interview with The Bee on Wednesday: He wants the state to enact a “right to shelter” mandate like New York has.

That would force cities and counties to create enough housing capacity to get homeless people under roofs. You can read more about that in Theresa Clift’s story on Steinberg’s appearance with me, but here is what it means:

Without explicitly saying it, Steinberg is fed up.

He’s tired of running into federal, state and county obstacles that keep homeless people on the streets. He’s tired of homeless advocates whose methods, however noble, result in people staying on the streets.

And most of all, he’s tired of our shared complacency on homelessness. He’s had it with all of us tacitly accepting that homeless people sleep on the river, pass out in doorways, defecate in front of our kids or experience mental breakdowns before our eyes.

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So to combat all these obstacles and more, Steinberg is doing what he does: He’s trying to bend government to ease the folly of flawed human beings complaining about homelessness every day without having any understanding of how complicated the issue is.

Did Steinberg say any of this to me as I just related it to you? No. And he never would because this man – by his political orientation and his faith – is not going to describe his form of governing in harsh or negative terms. He’s going to be his usual upbeat self.

“You want me to make news? Let’s make news,” he said cheerfully in announcing a proposal for the statewide “right to shelter” mandate. But if you really paid attention to a candid, unscripted, conversational deep dive on homelessness in Sacramento from Steinberg, you would notice five key points that conveyed his frustration, his acceptance and his approach to the most critical social issue facing our city and our state.

Point 1: Hey, here’s honesty in a politician

Did you notice that Steinberg is done making bold statements on homelessness that he knows he can’t keep? Right at the end our talk, he spoke of “planting seeds” to deal with the issue. Earlier in the talk, he dismissed “10-year plans to end homelessness” that used to be offered by politicians like Steinberg, as if provocative words would solve the problem. They won’t.

In one of the last questions he fielded on Wednesday, I asked Steinberg if we ever would see a day when homeless people weren’t sleeping in Cesar Chavez Plaza, right across from City Hall.

He took a pass on the question. He said he would be a bad politician if he promised such a thing. He said the issue of homelessness will always be with us. Why is this important? Because it marks a rarity in politicians: Honesty.

Point 2: Pressure the community to act

Without expressly calling us out, Steinberg did call us on out homelessness. A statewide “right to shelter,” as he described on Wednesday, would put pressure on communities to stop stalling and house people. That’s what we’ve been doing in Sacramento. We’ve been stalling. We oppose every shelter in every community.

So pushing the state to mandate housing for homelessness is Steinberg’s answer to our inertia on homelessness, an answer he presented with his trademark optimism and a complete lack of outward disgust for our community acceptance of homeless people on our streets.

Point 3: Affluent communities should have shelters

Steinberg knows how unfair that less affluent neighborhoods are always where homeless shelters are proposed. When I asked him when he would pitch a homeless shelter in the Fabulous 40s, the well-heeled, well-manicured East Sacramento enclave, Steinberg didn’t blink. He said he would do it in a heartbeat. His words raised a larger question: Why don’t more neighborhoods, especially the affluent ones, do more to explicitly confront the homeless crisis?

Point 4: Housing costs a lot, so does doing nothing

The mayor’s willingness to try any and all homeless plans – shelters, tents, pop ups, tiny homes –is not a sign of weakness. It’s an acknowledgment that it’s going to take a variety of plans to get people under roofs.

Building housing for people requiring a lot of help to get on their feet is expensive. When I mentioned to Steinberg how housing homeless people cost the city $30,000 per person, he replied the cost of doing nothing costs more.

Point 5: Prosperity is a double-edged sword

Steinberg acknowledged that Sacramento’s prosperity, its soaring rents and housing prices, are exacerbating the issue of homelessness. That’s why he fought to set aside city money to invest in neighborhoods that have been left behind.

At the end of last year, Steinberg hoped that 2019 would be the year our eyes began seeing a change in the number of homeless people we see on the streets. At this point, he is far more realistic. He hopes that by the time by the time he is done as mayor, perhaps in 2024, he will be judged well for his efforts. But he knows that it could go the other way.

It’s the price of taking on the issue of our time.

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Marcos Breton writes commentary and opinion columns about the Sacramento region, California and the United States. He’s been a California newspaperman for more than 30 years. He’s a graduate of San Jose State University, a voter for the Baseball Hall of Fame and the proud son of Mexican immigrants.
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