On a cold, rainy evening earlier this month, Michael Nunez went to sleep outside Sacramento City Hall. He never woke up.
A few days later, another man, known to friends as “Binny,” went to sleep outside City Hall. He, too, was dead by morning. Fellow homeless campers found him lying on his side on the cold concrete, partially covered by a small blanket for warmth.
If there were ever a problem pressing enough to demand the undivided attention of Sacramento’s mayor, the full City Council and the entire Board of Supervisors for Sacramento County, homelessness is certainly it. So we have high hopes for Tuesday’s joint meeting between the city and the county to come up with some viable solutions.
For too many years, inertia has been passed off as action by elected officials, while hundreds of men and women continue to sleep outside every night in Sacramento County, narrowly avoiding death themselves.
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What is needed is bold, immediate action, and Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s plan, which leads Tuesday’s meeting agenda, fits that bill.
He wants to change the way federal housing assistance is doled out. Homeless people and people at risk of becoming homeless would be put on a new list that would take priority over thousands of elderly, disabled and low-income people who have been waiting years for public housing or a rental vouchers.
Then the county would have to do what it has avoided for so long: Adequately fund mental health and addiction services for the hundreds of newly housed people, probably with help from a Sutter Health grant.
“Housing is the spark,” Steinberg told members of The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board on Monday, adding later: “Are we just going to celebrate every time we cut a darn ribbon to create 20 more (shelter) spots?”
Indeed, it’s time to do more than half-measures. To their credit, county supervisors seem to agree and are open to at least exploring the mayor’s plan. Advocates for the homeless, while wary of pitting one group of poor people against another for scarce resources, are pleased the city and the county are finally on the verge of doing something big.
We support Steinberg’s bold strategy. But the devil is in the details, and the plan will take months.
There’s no guarantee the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will go along. There’s no guarantee the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency will be able to reach the tens of thousands of applicants on its waiting list to see if they’re homeless and, therefore, eligible for expedited housing. And there’s certainly no guarantee that landlords will take housing vouchers from homeless people when they can fill their apartments with market-rate renters.
So there are all sorts of enemies to meaningful action. But with homeless people dying on the streets, there are also reasons for everyone involved to try to make it work. Steinberg’s plan is only a stopgap measure that will last two years, long enough to tide over Sacramento until funds from the state’s No Place Like Home initiative can be used to build more permanent supportive housing.
In the meantime, the city and the county can’t afford to slow down on rolling out emergency services that can help homeless people now. Several shelters have opened in recent weeks, including an upcoming one at Serna Village. Steinberg says more are on the way.
But at Tuesday’s meeting, serious discussion should be given to a building a triage center, too. Few have mentioned it since April, months after several council members flew to Seattle to check out that city’s sanctioned camps for homeless people. After weeks of discussion, then-Mayor Kevin Johnson and the council decided that a tent city wasn’t the right way to go for Sacramento. Instead, they settled on a triage center. That needs to be in the mix.
To truly begin to address homelessness, Sacramento needs as many long-term plans to get people into housing with services as it short-term remedies to address the public health disaster unfolding right now. That’s the only way to build momentum.