Editorials

Sacramento County swears it’s part of the solution for homelessness. It’s actually the problem.

Sacramento police Officer Michelle Lazark talks with homeless people a block from City Hall near the intersection of 11th and I Street, responding to a complaint the sidewalk path was blocked.
Sacramento police Officer Michelle Lazark talks with homeless people a block from City Hall near the intersection of 11th and I Street, responding to a complaint the sidewalk path was blocked. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Sacramento’s dysfunctional approach to this region’s homeless crisis was supposed to have ended back in 2009.

That was the year the Oprah Winfrey Show spent some time on a soggy American River Parkway, talking to homeless campers while cameras recorded rows of leaky tents framed by the Sacramento skyline.

“What do you miss most about your old life?” the show’s correspondent Lisa Ling asked a 47-year-old woman named Tammy who had been living on the parkway for months because the recession had left her jobless.

For whatever reason – staff, pride, bad habit – the county has insisted upon leaving a major stream of federal funding on the table, with no good explanation and only vague plans to remedy the situation.

“I miss looking like a girl,” Tammy replied, her eyes welling. “I miss smelling like a girl. I don’t like to look and see my hands dirty all the time.”

The nationally televised segment was a civic humiliation. Overnight, Sacramento became a symbol for what happens when elected officials – in this case, county and city – can’t cooperate even in the face of disaster.

After Ling left town, the county Board of Supervisors, the mayor and the City Council vowed to do better, to put aside competing agendas and work together to get homeless people into housing.

Eight years later, homeless people remain camped not just on the parkway, but in streets, sidewalks and parks throughout Sacramento. Housing is increasingly unaffordable, exacerbating the problem. In fact, this month, the results of a headcount conducted earlier this year are expected to show the homeless population is growing.

Meanwhile, the effort to get people off the street is as gridlocked as ever, in a capital city of a major state with more than its share of resources and policy sophistication.

Sacramento Steps Forward, the nonprofit created in 2009 to organize a common mission, is a shadow of its former self. High hopes have devolved into turf wars, bruised egos, pettiness, grandstanding and hyperventilating over pet projects.

And finger-pointing abounds. But this time, it’s glaringly apparent that, of all the players, the Sacramento County supervisors are largely to blame.

Unlike 2009, when the state was suffering a historic downturn, tens of millions of public dollars – perhaps more than $100 million – are available now to help homeless people.

Yet for whatever reason – staff, pride, bad habit – the county has insisted upon leaving that money on the table, with no good explanation and only vague plans to remedy the situation.

Never mind the upbeat talk, just months ago, as the election of Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg heralded a new era. And never mind the mayor’s long and seemingly valuable experience as a legislative leader who spent decades addressing homelessness from a statewide perspective.

Despite pleas from the mayor – and council members and regional hospitals and nonprofits – county supervisors and staff refused even to apply for a major stream of federal funds, administered through a state pilot project, that would have dramatically increased both the city’s and county’s ability to keep homeless people out of emergency rooms, and get them mental health care and addiction treatment.

The city ended up applying on its own for the program, known as “Whole Person Care,” partnering with regional players. Now Sacramento is the only city in California with Whole Person Care money. And Sacramento County is the only large county without it.

The $32 million in matching funds over four years will underwrite an “aggressive approach” to getting as many as 3,250 homeless people off the streets, Steinberg told The Bee’s Anita Chabria. Those with the most severe problems and the greatest resistance to accepting help will be targeted first.

That means there soon might be fewer people cursing and swinging at invisible demons, sleeping in the middle of midtown sidewalks and defecating in front yards. More than 1,600 of them also could be placed in housing.

But the numbers could have – and should have – been far bigger. And they would have been, had the county been less wedded to its own far less promising agenda.

In the budget they adopted June 14, the supervisors went with a separate plan, implemented on a parallel track, to reduce homelessness, agreeing to spend $6.2 million on emergency shelters, supportive housing and preservation of services at the Mather Community Campus. The county also applied for grants for three new mental health facilities, and is pursuing a Medicaid waiver project that would improve access to drug and alcohol treatment.

Which is fine as far as it goes; the county has woefully underfunded these services for years, unfairly turning emergency rooms into de facto crisis centers for mentally ill homeless people. But $6.2 million is nothing compared to the tens of millions more in federal dollars that the county could have deployed had the supervisors, like the city and hospitals, been willing to invest in Whole Person Care.

It is beyond time for the county Board of Supervisors to start working with the city, rather than against it. Addiction and mental health services that complement what the city is doing to address homelessness aren’t enough.

And lost opportunity is only part of the story. The county oversees much of the social safety net that Sacramento’s homeless population relies on. Without the county’s help, Sacramento’s Whole Person Care effort could be hobbled, and its funding could go to waste.

It is beyond time for the county Board of Supervisors to start working with the city, rather than against it. Addiction and mental health services that complement what the city is doing to address homelessness aren’t enough. This region needs an agreed upon strategy to implement Whole Person Care and move homeless people off the streets. And it needs to be rolled out in a coordinated way.

County Executive Nav Gill and City Manager Howard Chan should do more than meet occasionally and make vague plans. They should act on their conversations. So should the mayor and Supervisor Don Nottoli, the board chair, who is too experienced to be as timid as he has been on this issue.

Supervisors Sue Frost and Susan Peters should remember their campaign pledges to address homelessness humanely and wisely. Supervisors Patrick Kennedy and Phil Serna, who share Steinberg’s cause, should be his allies. And Serna needs to think outside the parkway.

We've been waiting since 2009 for real teamwork. The suffering people camped on Sacramento's river banks and streets have been waiting longer. Dysfunction as usual must end now. We're watching. Cooperate.

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