With strong moral leadership, Sacramento can solve growing crisis of homelessness

Carl Ulmer died near Ahern Street last Tuesday. He was 62, homeless and sleeping outside on a night when temperatures dropped into the 30s.

The coroner has yet to determine a cause of death. Homeless advocates say Ulmer might still be alive if the city had opened its warming centers. City guidelines keep them closed unless temperatures remain freezing for three nights in a row. Ulmer died on the first night of the cold snap, and homeless advocates have asked the city and the county to discard the guidelines and open the warming centers.

This is clearly an overdue step that may prevent more deaths.

Ulmer wasn’t the first homeless person to die on the streets of our city. He likely won’t be the last. On any given night, thousands of people in Sacramento struggle to survive without shelter.

“A census conducted on a single night in 2017, the most recent available survey, found 3,665 people living without permanent housing in Sacramento County, an increase of 30 percent from 2015,” according to a story by The Sacramento Bee’s Theresa Clift.

Ulmer’s death was a preventable tragedy, and stories like his may one day be a thing of the past if Mayor Darrell Steinberg gets his way. Sacramento, at Steinberg’s direction, has embarked on an ambitious new plan to deal with homelessness. Today, the City Council will discuss on how to spend $36 million designated to address the problem.

This is a significant milestone. And there’s no question about what made it possible: the passionate moral leadership of Mayor Steinberg, who has pledged to move 2000 people from the streets into some kind of housing by 2020.

Nearly $16 million of the funding comes from the Measure U reserve fund. While the measure passed before Steinberg became mayor, the big investment in homeless solutions is only possible because Steinberg convinced voters to both extend and increase the sales tax in 2018. The rest comes from state and private funds. Steinberg thinks the city’s first priority should be the expanded triage shelter plan he calls the “8 x 100 approach” – 100 new beds for the homeless in each council district.

“It must be a fair approach,” said Steinberg “It shouldn’t just be one area of the city.”

The temporary sites may consist of “Sprung” shelters, which are “semi-permanent, tent-like buildings that can be erected in a matter of weeks,” according to The Bee. The city already has one such site housing 100 people on Railroad Drive in North Sacramento.

Steinberg raised private funds from Sutter Health, UC Davis, and Helene and David S. Taylor, as well as others, to keep the shelter open.

The mayor has encountered some resistance. Not every member of the City Council is thrilled about the idea of shelters their districts. Yet most have come to agree with the mayor, and council members like Jay Schenirer are moving forward with plans to make beds available.

Triage isn’t a permanent solution, but it beats leaving people in the streets. Steinberg envisions a city where people can transition from the street to a shelter, and then to permanent housing. Last January, he proposed building 1,000 tiny homes to serve as transitional housing for homeless people. He asked the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency to gather proposals.

A year later, SHRA had nothing to show for it except vague proposals lacking critical details. This led to the unusual spectacle of the normally polite Steinberg blasting the agency’s non-performance during a City Council meeting.

“We need somebody driving an aggressive goal to build more affordable housing,” he said.

It looks like that somebody is Mayor Darrell Steinberg – and he’s up to the task.

The question is not whether some residents of Sacramento will continue to find themselves too impoverished to afford shelter. In a society plagued by severe economic inequality, where many people live paycheck to paycheck, thousands live with the threat of homelessness.

The question is: Will our community care for all its citizens and help those who fall into homelessness? Or will Sacramento remain a place where thousands sleep – and many die – in the streets?

How we treat the poorest and most vulnerable in our community provides a measure of our moral character. Mayor Steinberg knows this. His leadership reflects it.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the homeless census referenced in the story was conducted in 2017, not 2016. In addition, it counted people living without permanent housing rather than only “people living outside.”