California Forum

How to solve homelessness in our community? It starts in this empty RT parking lot

People experiencing homelessness camp along Ahern Street near North B Street, Friday, February 7, 2019, where a homeless man was found deceased on Tuesday as temperatures dropped to the low 30s, causing homeless activists to question why local officials have not opened warming centers.
People experiencing homelessness camp along Ahern Street near North B Street, Friday, February 7, 2019, where a homeless man was found deceased on Tuesday as temperatures dropped to the low 30s, causing homeless activists to question why local officials have not opened warming centers. lsterling@sacbee.com

Our city has a crisis. Our fellow Sacramentans are living under our freeways, in our parks and throughout our neighborhoods in the cold, heat and rain. Anyone who walks downtown, drives our streets or rides on our bikeways has seen the startling increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness.

We will soon get a picture of just how serious it is when the biennial 2019 “Point in Time Count” numbers are released. The last count, in 2017, found that the number of people living outdoors had jumped by 85 percent in two years.

I expect this trend to continue.

My colleagues on the City Council and I have asked for staff and community proposals to address this humanitarian and public health emergency. Addressing the problem requires finding suitable and safe places to shelter people while securing permanent housing and addressing the root causes of becoming homeless.

Doing all of this requires a considerable collective effort by our entire city. It requires choices that affect all Sacramentans. We must do more.

Opinion

As this issue is prevalent in every council district, no single neighborhood or council district should be left to tackle it alone. The first step is to make sure everyone who needs service has a roof over their head. Mayor Darrell Steinberg has asked that each City Council member locate at least 100 beds in the portion of the city they represent.

I am proposing a temporary homeless shelter in a largely unused Sacramento Regional Transit parking lot off Florin Road. This structure would house up to 100 people and provide a full array of services with the goal of moving people into permanent housing and employment.

The city would provide increased police patrols and 24-hour security, and our Downtown Streets Teams would use a crew of homeless people to clean the station, the shelter and the surrounding neighborhood.

This is not a walk-up shelter. People would enter by referral, and priority would be given to individuals experiencing homelessness right in the surrounding neighborhood.

My office is holding community meetings that have so far attracted broad attendance from businesses, community organizations, agencies and residents. People have raised valid safety questions about putting a homeless shelter in close proximity to a neighborhood and to a light rail station. I understand their concerns.

Jay Schenirer new
Jay Schenirer

But we have no choice but to do all we can to solve this problem. While no neighborhood is clamoring for a homeless shelter, the fairest and most effective way to house people is to spread our shelters throughout the city rather than concentrating them in one neighborhood. By providing additional security around the shelter, plus clean up crews around it, we can mitigate any potential negative effects.

Besides, it’s not as if there weren’t homeless people in the neighborhood already. We are simply proposing to move them inside and offer them some real help.

People living on the streets need immediate stability. They need connections to ongoing resources and services that can eventually transition them to becoming contributing members of our community. If we want them to be integrated and successful in our communities, we need to ensure that they are safe as well. This shelter can provide a safe place for them to reclaim their lives.

Over the past 13 months, the city has shown that a new, low-barrier-to-entry approach to housing people can work, even for people who have been homeless for years. We’ve seen the success of the North Sacramento Triage Shelter, which uses proactive outreach to reach people and surrounds them with services to stabilize them physically, mentally and financially. More than 600 people have been served, and nearly 200 of them have been permanently housed.

We have learned much. We believe we know what works. It’s a matter of scale.

Choosing where to site a homeless shelter is a balancing act. But on balance, we will all be better off if we can get thousands of people off the streets and into temporary, and then permanent, housing.

Maybe we can finally make meaningful progress in addressing the most pressing challenge to who we are as a community.

Jay Schenirer is a member of the Sacramento City Council for District 5. He chairs the Law and Legislation Committee and is an independent consultant and policy adviser on education reform and youth policy and strategies.
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