No more excuses. It's time for Sacramento County to work with city on homelessness

Sacramento County cleanup of homeless camp

Sacramento County officials use a truck with hydraulic arm to remove debris left from a homeless camp along Stockton Boulevard at Baker Avenue, Wednesday, Nov. 1.
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Sacramento County officials use a truck with hydraulic arm to remove debris left from a homeless camp along Stockton Boulevard at Baker Avenue, Wednesday, Nov. 1.

After years of watching mentally ill campers commandeer the American River Parkway and, increasingly, the alleys and parks of neighborhoods, it’s no wonder many Sacramentans have come to believe homelessness is a problem that can’t be solved.

But that’s not necessarily true. And on Tuesday, the Sacramento County’s notoriously meek Board of Supervisors has a chance to help prove it by voting to work with the city on a bold plan to get hundreds of chronically homeless men and women off the streets.

For months, Mayor Darrell Steinberg has been pushing the county do this by jointly implementing the Whole Person Care pilot grant program. Steinberg wants the county to fork over as much as $54 million to match the existing pool of $64 million to ramp up county-run mental health and addiction services so homeless people will have a clear path into care and, eventually, into housing.

It’s a sound plan, backed by several local hospitals and community groups. But for months, Steinberg has been rebuffed – most recently by county staff, who we now know have been squirreling away $127 million in state Mental Health Services Act funding, in some cases earmarking it for projects decades away. That supervisors had no idea this was going on until last month is completely unacceptable.

The only question now – and make no mistake, it’s a moral one as well as a financial one – is whether the supervisors will finally show some courage and do the right thing for their constituents Tuesday, or cave like they usually do and play it safe with the status quo.

The answer should be obvious.

According to the latest headcount, about 3,600 men, women and children have no place to sleep on any given night in Sacramento County, with roughly 2,000 of them snoozing outside. Their ranks are growing, too, as housing prices rise.

Meanwhile, not counting the temporary winter shelters that are opening soon, the county only has about 1,600 shelter beds available every night. Permanent supportive housing is scarce, and waiting lists for services are nightmarishly long.

There are fears of a hepatitis A outbreak erupting here, as it did among homeless people in San Diego, and disgusting levels of E. coli bacteria already taint the American River, most likely from campers using it as a toilet.

If all of that doesn’t convince the supervisors to work with the city on Whole Person Care, then a new report documenting the deaths of homeless people should.

Between 2002 and 2016, almost 800 people died, which works out to about one person every week, according to the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. Last year, 71 homeless people died, including Eddy Preradov, a 30-year-old who had an drug overdose only a week after he vowed to get clean.

In fact, alcohol and drugs are the leading underlying cause of death among homeless people in the county, according to the report. Clearly, it’s time for the county to step up.

It has taken months to get here, but the power to end homelessness as we know it is now in the hands of the Board of Supervisors. Now is the time for bold action from the county, not more half-measures and cowardice.

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