Is Sacramento finally getting a handle on homelessness?

Mayor Darrell Steinberg, center, and other members of the community sing “Let There Be Peace on Earth” during the 3rd Annual Interfaith Homeless Memorial Service at Trinity Cathedral.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg, center, and other members of the community sing “Let There Be Peace on Earth” during the 3rd Annual Interfaith Homeless Memorial Service at Trinity Cathedral. hamezcua@sacbee.com

With the seemingly endless cycles of hand-wringing, followed by political posturing and paralysis, it’s a rare day when there’s more action than talk about helping homeless people. It’s a rarer day still when the city and county of Sacramento are behind such action.

Call it a Day-After-Christmas miracle.

For the third time on Monday, men and women who otherwise would be left to fend for themselves on the streets in near-freezing temperatures will gather at a city-funded warming station, wrapping themselves in county-supplied blankets and downing county-provided food and and hot drinks.

It’s a small measure of kindness, one that long ago should have been a no-brainer for our community. But the shameful truth is, it’s far more than Sacramento has offered in years. Instead, warming centers were limited to nights when temperatures were forecast to fall below freezing for three consecutive nights.

For this change in policy and compassion, we can thank incoming Mayor Darrell Steinberg.

“It may be a matter of degrees, but it’s still freezing cold,” he told The Bee’s Anita Chabria. “I hope that this first step provides some hope and some real relief.”

Steinberg knows – as do the rest of us – there’s a lot more work to be done in the new year to help people get off the streets. The question is whether the warming center is truly a one-time political miracle that will fade with the holidays, or the beginning of a new way of operating for Sacramento. There are good signs it’s the latter.

Sharing his thoughts with a member of The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board, Steinberg said he wants to “see some dramatic changes” in the way homelessness is addressed – or, as it too often seems now, not addressed.

Every part of the system designed to prevent and reduce homelessness is broken or operating on a shoestring budget. Sacramento County has poured millions into services and the city spends millions more every year, but with rising housing costs, none of that has led to a reduction in people camping in the central city or in the surrounding neighborhoods or even the suburbs.

Doing so will mean greatly expanding the number of workers who walk the streets trying to build relationships with people who have been living outdoors for years, often with substance abuse problems, mental health issues and criminal records.

It takes time and effort to coax chronically homeless people indoors, even temporarily in shelters. To do that, the city should consider adding to the small army of navigators from Sacramento Steps Forward. Steinberg also wants to add social workers and others with medical training to the mix.

Building on discussions in the City Council that grew out of calls to ditch Sacramento’s anti-camping ordinance and sanction tent cities, Steinberg also sees the need for a triage center with extended hours. Homelessness is a problem that exists 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So it makes little sense that Sacramento doesn’t already have a facility that serves people at any hour.

But in the long term, the only real solution for homelessness is permanent housing, which is in increasingly short supply. Right now, even those who’ve worked the system correctly and gotten themselves on the right lists have to wait two to three months for housing.

Developing a plan to increase the stock, Steinberg says, will start with a joint meeting between the City Council and Sacramento County supervisors on Jan. 31. That’s a potential game-changer in a political environment which has often seen the city and county at odds over spending on homelessness.

The mayor promises “action” at that meeting and at two more meetings scheduled with supervisors later in 2017. It’s an excellent start. For too many years homelessness has been put on the back burner. Sacramento can do better.