We can’t fix homelessness without regional strategy

Sacramento’s homeless service coordinator, Emily Halcon, speaks to a Sacramento City Council subcommittee about the viability of services and programs.
Sacramento’s homeless service coordinator, Emily Halcon, speaks to a Sacramento City Council subcommittee about the viability of services and programs. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Most of the time, the old adage about California is true. Where we go, so goes the nation. But not on homelessness.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that homelessness is actually on the decline nationwide, down 14 percent since 2010 among families, veterans and people with disabilities. That clearly doesn’t apply to this state, which, for far too many years, has been home to more than one-third of the nation’s homeless population.

In the Sacramento region, men and women continue to sleep under highway bridges, on street corners, along the American River Parkway and, when they’re lucky, in crowded shelters. Children doze off alongside their parents in cars and in tents pitched in backyards before heading off to school each day.

This is despite Sacramento County spending upwards of $40 million a year to get people into emergency shelters, treatment and housing, and the city of Sacramento spending millions more.

So as the temperature drops and rain starts to fall in earnest, the perennial question returns: How do we end homelessness – or at least deal a significant blow to it?

The answer, as always, must be a combination of short-term and long-term tactics, and a strategy that prizes not only getting the most vulnerable people off the streets quickly, but also getting them into permanent housing, and preventing others from becoming homeless in the first place.

Too often, the discussion devolves into an either/or proposition, when it should be all of the above. To truly move the needle, an agreed upon, coordinated regional plan is needed to roll out services and manage spending.

One good sign locally is the growing recognition that homelessness is a problem in Roseville, Elk Grove and Citrus Heights, as well as West Sacramento in Yolo County.

Sacramento’s Board of Supervisors bumped up the county’s contribution to the annual “winter sanctuary” shelter program by $100,000 for a total of $360,000 in its 2016-17 budget. But other cities are considering what they can do, too.

Voters in West Sacramento, for example, passed Measure E this month, boosting the city’s sales tax by 0.25 percentage points. At least some of the $3.3 million it will raise annually will go toward reducing homelessness, although what that will look like remains unclear.

Already there have been informal discussions between officials in West Sacramento and Sacramento city and county about providing services. But given the number of homeless people who travel back and forth across the Sacramento River, coordination of spending must be a priority.

Other partnerships are popping up, too, including a roving medical-legal clinic that could open by next spring. Run by the McGeorge School of Law and WellSpace Health, it will specifically serve homeless people who need to get warrants, tickets and fines removed from their records or get credit and immigration issues resolved, which could make it easier to get housing or a driver’s license.

The clinic could end up in a triage center or in a permanent supportive housing complex, both of which could be built with a portion of the $2 billion from the No Place Like Home initiative, intended to boost housing stock for people who are mentally ill.

In the end, though, many of these efforts are short-term, reactive fixes to homelessness. In the long term, preventing people from slipping into homelessness – and, in many cases, developing or succumbing to a mental illness from the stress of living outdoors – means finding a way to balance environmental regulations with the need to build more housing.

California has failed to supply enough housing over the past decade to serve the state’s burgeoning population. It’s a huge problem in an even relatively affordable California city like Sacramento, where about 96 percent of all apartments were rented in August and rent for low-income residents jumped 12 percent in September compared to the same month a year ago, according to survey group Yardi Matrix.

Gov. Jerry Brown tried – and failed – to address this issue this past year with legislation to speed up residential development in cities, quashing NIMBYism by bypassing some environmental regulations and local review processes.

His efforts would have prevented a lawsuit like the one filed this month by the Citizens for Positive Growth and Preservation. The mysterious group wants to block a 13-story condo tower from being built on the southeast corner of 25th and J streets because it’s 30 feet too tall. That’s housing that’s sorely needed in midtown.

The governor isn’t giving up, though. Chances are, a revamped plan will make it into next year’s State of the State address and budget. That’s good because increasing the supply of affordable housing is crucial. It’s impossible to talk about reducing homelessness without also talking about that.