Sacramento County has finally seen reason on homelessness. Now the real work begins

Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna walks along the American River Parkway, past a homeless encampment.
Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna walks along the American River Parkway, past a homeless encampment.

Years from now, Mayor Darrell Steinberg undoubtedly will look back on Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting and remember the details of his decisive political victory. The rest of us will remember it as a victory for Sacramento County.

It’s hard not to be ever-so slightly optimistic after all five supervisors voted to spend $44 million to help get thousands of chronically homeless people off the streets. In casting the vote, the board by extension agreed to work in conjunction with the city and the Whole Person Care pilot program. The money, all of it in state Mental Health Services Act dollars, will be used to beef up county-run services over the next three years.

With more than 2,000 men and women sleeping outside in Sacramento County every night, many of them mentally ill and addicted to drugs, turning neighborhoods into public health nightmares, the decision couldn’t have come a moment too soon.

Still, it was the vote that almost didn’t happen.

For months, Steinberg has been urging the county to help implement the Whole Person Care program, as have we on the Sacramento Bee’s editorial board in a series of editorials. The city and local hospitals put up $32 million and secured matching grants under the federal program for a total of $64 million to pay for street-level outreach.

But the county repeatedly rejected the mayor’s argument that, together, the county and city could pool their resources and come up with a common strategy to combat homelessness. Inexplicably, the Sacramento County staff put up the biggest fight, that is, until Steinberg unearthed $127 million in state mental health funding that had been earmarked but unused in the county’s budget.

County staff had wanted to spend a mere $42 million over six years – not nearly enough to meet the need on the streets.

But Steinberg persisted, seeking the $44 million over three years. To the pleasant surprise of homeless advocates who had been discouraged by the county staff’s plan, he put forth the alternative proposal with Supervisors Phil Serna and Patrick Kennedy, and they managed to prevail.

It’s saying something that even Supervisors Sue Frost and Susan Peters, who represent suburbs in the northeast part of the county, went along with the plan. Frost objected most, asking that supervisors delay the vote.

Serna, to his credit, told his fellow board members: “What I’m not interested in doing is punting.”

Steinberg called the infusion of cash and the partnership “a watershed moment for our community.” It will allow Sacramento “to combat this growing problem aggressively now, now, and not at some uncertain time in the future.”

Indeed, given its history, that $44 million is a triumph. Now, the county and city must proceed to spend the money wisely. We don’t expect homelessness to be abolished any time soon. But the region’s residents, including the ones who live on the streets, can rightly expect significant progress in the months and years to come.