Why inaction this summer means homeless people will die in Sacramento this winter

Even though Sacramento is sweltering with triple-digit heat for the rest of this week, winter is coming.

And this winter, like every winter, homeless people will be out on the street due to precious little progress made on building shelters city wide in this calendar year as Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg had hoped. Aside from a 180-bed shelter at the Capitol Park Hotel downtown, it doesn’t appear that any other new city shelter will open before winter.

Here is a bet: Some Sacramento residents will be upset this winter if, say, a homeless person dies on the street on a bitter cold night as we saw in February when 62-year-old Carl Ulmer died on Ahern Street.

In those times, in the heat of civic outrage, you see people post incredulous screeds on social media that start with these words: “Why isn’t Sacramento doing anything!”


What never seems to click community wide are the top reasons why homeless people are very likely to die on our streets then. The seeds for those deaths were planted this week and this summer.

Here are five key reasons why homeless people will die this winter because of our inaction this summer:

One: Residents object to shelters

One vehement group of people always opposes proposed shelters to house homeless people. Who are they?

Sacramento residents.

The latest example was Monday: Meadowview residents led by their councilman Larry Carr strongly opposed Steinberg’s plan for a 100-bed shelter on a city-owned parking lot at the corner of Meadowview Road and Coral Gables Court.

That’s right next to the Pannell Community Center, viewed with great reverence by Meadowview residents as a community touchstone named after the late Sam Pannell, who represented the area in the 1990s.

This would be what they call a “low barrier” shelter. That means you can live there even if you are addicted to drugs, have animals or significant others. The people who would live in the shelters have significant life issues and would need support from mental health and drug addiction counselors.

Meadowview residents essentially say: Hey, our community already has challenges. We don’t want a homeless shelter next to the best part of Meadowview. Why is it always communities like ours who get stuck with more programs tending to impoverished people with significant issues? Why not in a rich community?

Two: You need the right space

I can answer the “Why put a homeless shelter not in a rich community?” question.

First, because rich people would never allow it. But even more important is that the city is severely limited on where they can put homeless shelters. They have to be at least two acres in size, paved and have sewage and water. They can’t be right next to homes.

That narrows the pool significantly. Moreover, the city pretty much wants to place the shelters on city land because private land is too expensive. The Meadowview site fits the bill, but ... people are strongly opposed.

Three: Scatter sites won’t work

There are other ideas besides the shelters that Steinberg wants city wide. For example: Councilwoman Angelique Ashby wants a smaller-scale approach. She wants some form of triage in industrial areas. She wants “scatter site” housing across the city. That’s basically smaller homes (no 100 bed shelters like what Steinberg wants).

Quite frankly, this idea sounds more appealing than shelters but there is a question of whether they could adequately address the issue of homelessness on our streets. And even Carr acknowledges that scattered housing probably wouldn’t be a good fit for many homeless who have big challenges.

“It’s not efficient either,” Carr said. “You would have social workers and other health professionals going from place to place at great cost.”

Four: We can’t agree

The fourth and perhaps largest impediment to our homeless crisis is a lack of consensus on what to do.

Even though a shelter like Meadowview – coupled with others in other city districts – could get more people off the streets, you would have to approve it over the objections of the councilman from Meadowview.

How would that look? A largely white council voting to put a shelter in the district of an African American councilman who says he made a death bed promise not to do that to the late Bonnie Pannell, who represented Meadowview before Carr, and after the death of her husband, Sam.

Five: Join the crowd, no one has a solution

And the fifth major reason why homeless people will die on our street this winter is that no city has figured this out.

If anything, Steinberg has more tangible wins than other mayors. He’s secured $16 million in homeless funding from a city sales tax increase. He has millions in state money coming. He’s campaigned endlessly to move Sacramento toward mobilizing larger-scale efforts to get people off the streets.

But as we saw last week, the barriers toward success are endless.

And then you have a divided, disinterested public who only tend to scream about things when somebody dies. Well, somebody will die this winter because of our failures this summer.

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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.