California Forum

Sacramento County can’t arrest its way out of homelessness

A homeless man camps near the American River in 2016. Sacramento’s city and county government are at odds over whether it will be more effective to jointly leverage resources or deploy more law enforcement along the river parkway.
A homeless man camps near the American River in 2016. Sacramento’s city and county government are at odds over whether it will be more effective to jointly leverage resources or deploy more law enforcement along the river parkway. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

The 2017 Homeless Count for Sacramento County documented a dramatic increase in the number of homeless people, rising from 2,822 in 2015 to 3,665 in 2017, of which 56 percent are unsheltered. That’s 2,000 neighbors in Sacramento County, through no fault of their own, forced to live outside, including along the American River Parkway.

The county Board of Supervisors should move with a sense of urgency to expand the number of emergency shelter beds and should be prioritizing additional funds to a woefully underfunded system of mental health and addiction services for homeless people to leverage the $32 million in “Whole Person Care” funding the city has received.

Instead, in late August, the board will consider spending an additional $3 million to $5 million on its “whack-a-mole” strategy to increase law enforcement along the parkway to hand out camping citations to people who have nowhere else to go.

Supervisors should forget playing ‘whack-a-mole’ on the parkway. Instead, expand shelter beds, prioritize homeless people for mental health care and housing and work with the city on Whole Person Care.

The supervisors recently authorized an additional $6.2 million on four new homeless initiatives, one of which was for a full-service, 24-hour dormitory-style shelter for up to 75 people. The sad reality is this center will not open until mid-2018 and only meets 3 percent of the need. There is no sense of urgency or scale and no coordination with the city’s initiatives.

Despite the supervisors’ claims that they can’t arrest their way out of homelessness, their budget priorities tell a different story. Overall, the county spends $40 million annually on homelessness, of which only $6 million is county general fund. Law enforcement already accounts for 67 percent of this $6 million; the planned increase for parkway enforcement would weight the county’s strategy even more toward arrests.

How would the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness spend an additional $5 million?

Triple the number of full-service rehousing shelters, housing 225 people; or employ 100 homeless people at $50,000 each, effectively giving them the means to house themselves. They could be deployed to help with debris removal and navigation to community resources, among other needed functions. And we would leverage city funds by prioritizing homeless people for care at county-run mental health and addiction programs and for county-controlled housing vouchers.

We urge the board to support effective shelter and employment. And leave the whack-a-mole game to the arcades.

Bob Erlenbusch is executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. Contact him at bob@srceh.org.

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