Editorials

Two steps forward, one step back for Sacramento’s homeless

William Mercer sits with his dog Chico at Cesar Chavez Plaza. He was friends with one of the two homeless men who died this year on the grounds of Sacramento City Hall.
William Mercer sits with his dog Chico at Cesar Chavez Plaza. He was friends with one of the two homeless men who died this year on the grounds of Sacramento City Hall. hamezcua@sacbee.com

In late January, Mayor Darrell Steinberg stood in front of Sacramento City Hall, not far from where two homeless men had died in their sleep, and told reporters: “I hope that people see that while we have a long way to go, we are fully committed and I feel a tremendous sense of urgency to do more.”

And “more” is what the city has done. The county, too. After weeks of debate, several initiatives are now in the works that should make it easier for homeless people get into subsidized housing, and gain access to mental health services through a new triage-style center.

But realistically, these initiatives will take months, or even years, to come to fruition. In the meantime, the short-term challenges of addressing homelessness haven’t changed. And, in fact, they’re about to get a lot worse with the closure of five wintertime shelters and warming centers, starting this weekend.

That means people soon will be back to living on the streets full time, just like before the temperature dropped and the rain started to fall. It also means that, once again this summer, Sacramento County supervisors will have to contend with homeless campers setting fires and trashing the American River Parkway.

Among the emergency shelters on the chopping block is the one that Steinberg hastily opened in January, offering an alternative to men and women camping on the grounds of City Hall. Since then, it has served as many as 40 people every night.

Others include a city-funded shelter at the Wind Youth Center that’s open nightly for 20 people; a warming center at Southside Park that provided a refuge for 40 people when it was cold or wet; plus the county-funded shelters at Stanford Settlement and the former El Hogar site on North A Street, with space for 70 people.

The Winter Sanctuary program, hosted by a rotating cast of churches every year, ends Friday. On the coldest and wettest nights of the season, dozens of homeless adults show up for a meal and a warm place to sleep.

Ideally, every one of these shelters and warming centers should stay open. But in the real world of crunched budgets, that’s not feasible.

The need is real for cost-effective stopgap measures – and so we applaud Steinberg and the City Council for being open-minded about Councilman Allen Warren’s plan to “test” a tent city in his North Sacramento district. Tent cities are not a solution to homelessness, and so any encampment must be temporary. But desperate times call for at least considering desperate measures.

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