The buck doesn’t stop with bureaucrats. Here’s who is to blame for homelessness in Sacramento

A homeless my who gave his name only as Scott, sits with his belongings under the freeway near 16th and W streets.
A homeless my who gave his name only as Scott, sits with his belongings under the freeway near 16th and W streets. rpench@sacbee.com

There’s a right way and a wrong way for government to function, one defined by leaders who actually lead and the other by leaders who are content to follow.

The mayor and Sacramento City Council clearly understand this. But we’re not so sure about the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors. There’s just no other way to explain the markedly different responses to homelessness that happen week after week. And this week will likely be no different.

On Tuesday, the Sacramento City Council will consider a handful of proposals that, among other things, would carve out funding to open a 200-bed temporary winter shelter by Dec. 1 – before it gets cold and rainy, and homeless people start dying in the streets again.

The plan grew out of talks involving Mayor Darrell Steinberg and councilmembers Jeff Harris and Allen Warren. North Sacramento would be home to both the temporary shelter and another permanent, triage shelter that would open next year.

Understandably, North Sacramento residents aren’t happy. But with more than 2,000 homeless people sleeping in alleys and along the American River, the council was right to ask city staff to draft a plan to open more shelters. And city staff were right to do as they were asked.

This is the way government is supposed to function. The elected officials set the policy; the bureaucrats, who serve at the pleasure of elected officials, figure out a plan to make the policy a reality; and the elected officials vote on the plan.

Sacramento County apparently hasn’t gotten this memo. When the Board of Supervisors meet, it’s not clear who works for whom.

For years, the staff, led by County Executive Nav Gill and Deputy County Executive Paul Lake, have been telling supervisors that there isn’t enough money to spend on services for the hundreds of mentally ill homeless people roaming the streets of Sacramento.

Again and again, supervisors have talked about the need to build more shelters and housing, and provide more outreach. But when they’ve asked county staff to come up with a plan to make that happen, they’ve repeatedly been discouraged and turned away, effectively killing policy decisions that would’ve helped vulnerable men, women and children.

And more recently, it was county staff, not supervisors, who made the policy decision not to work with the city to implement the Whole Person Care pilot program, which will use matching grant dollars to get chronically homeless people off the streets and into care. For months, staff said they couldn’t possibly help because the county didn’t have enough money.

But surprise! It turns out the county actually does have money – as much as $98.4 million via the Mental Health Services Act that staff had squirreled away for projects that are decades away. What’s more, supervisors had no idea the money existed. It took Steinberg, who sponsored the Mental Health Services Act, to sift through the county’s budget and point it out at last Tuesday’s supervisors meeting.

The supervisors should be embarrassed. By now, it’s clear that county staff are being obstructionists, but the buck doesn’t stop with them. Gill, Lake and the rest of their team serve the board, not the other way around.

It’s hard to believe that, though, when Supervisor Don Nottoli, hours after hearing about $98.4 million hiding in the budget, accepts the lackluster explanation of yet another staffer about why the county doesn’t have enough money to keep a homeless shelter open through the whole winter.

It’s time for the supervisors to do the job they were elected to do. Getting homeless people into housing ultimately comes down to leadership, and we need more of it at Sacramento County.

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