Sacramento’s homeless population is rising. Are we doing enough to solve the crisis?

Homeless in Sacramento

Sacramento Bee photographers found a few people willing to tell us why they are homeless.
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Sacramento Bee photographers found a few people willing to tell us why they are homeless.

There’s no sugarcoating it: Sacramento’s homeless crisis is getting worse. The number of homeless people in Sacramento County has surged by at least 19 percent over the past two years, according to a federally mandated point-in-time survey conducted by Sacramento Steps Forward.

That’s a total of 5,570 homeless people, around 3,900 of whom are living unsheltered, according to a story by The Sacramento Bee’s Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks and Theresa Clift. The count, which is conducted every two years, found a total of 1,905 more human beings living homeless in Sacramento County.

This year’s survey covered a lot more ground than previous ones. Sacramento Steps Forward deployed triple the number of volunteers while doubling the size of the area covered. So, it’s possible that we’re just getting a much better idea of the issue’s scope.

The news comes at a time when Sacramento has finally seemed to embrace the idea that city leaders have a moral responsibility to address this issue. Mayor Darrell Steinberg deserves credit for elevating the urgency of homelessness and encouraging his colleagues to address it.

Steinberg has pledged to move 2,000 people into some form of housing by 2020, and the city has set aside $36 million to create “rehousing shelters.” The county has also spent millions of dollars to move people into housing.


Yet, despite the clear emergency, some in Sacramento continue to resist solutions, like Steinberg’s plan to build temporary shelters for 100 people in each city council district.

According to the latest survey, however, our homeless neighbors are in dire need of action:

93 percent of our homeless people are from Sacramento, debunking the oft-repeated myth that homeless people come from somewhere else. They don’t – they’re from here.

20 percent of the homeless are families with children, and about half of these 372 families with kids are sleeping outdoors

One out of every five homeless people in Sacramento County is 55 or older. Some fear this number will grow even larger as California’s population ages over the next 10 years.

Only 30 percent are “‘chronically homeless’ – homeless for more than a year, or repeatedly, while struggling with a disabling condition such as mental illness, substance abuse or physical disability.”

Contrary to common myths about the homeless, the lack of affordable housing is the main problem.

As Sacramento experiences rebirth as California’s new hip and affordable destination, it’s coming at a cost to some in our existing community. The Greater Sacramento Economic Council extols the fact that 24,000 Bay Area residents move to Sacramento every year, but what about the residents being pushed out onto the streets?

The unsheltered in Sacramento constitute a city within a city. Take a walk through the city’s central core, or drive down any of the main thoroughfares leading out to the suburbs, and you will see people struggling to survive.

Sacramento is not alone. Homelessness is surging across the state, and it has increased by over 40 percent in both Alameda and Orange counties. California’s homeless population was estimated at 134,000 in 2017, according to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Sacramento’s grim homeless survey does provide a ray of hope. The percentage of unsheltered chronically homeless people living on the street dropped eight points, from 39 percent to 31 percent. Mayor Steinberg sees it as evidence that investments by the city and the county are delivering results, yet he questions whether these efforts are enough.

“I believe this issue is our number one challenge in our community, and it is among the most significant challenges – if not the most significant challenge – our state faces,” Steinberg said. “There’s so much excitement about what’s happening in our city and our region … and yet this issue, more than any other, threatens not only our quality of life, but also how we feel about ourselves. Because there are so many people out there that are suffering, and there are people who desperately need help.”

Steinberg, who Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed to chair a statewide task force on homelessness, suggested that it may be time for cities and counties to become even more creative in sheltering the unsheltered.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf recently took the unprecedented step of opening the Bay Area’s first parking lot where people who live in recreational vehicles can park 24/7. Steinberg suggested Sacramento may follow suit.

“Those aren’t permanent long-term solutions, but we’ve got to provide people the safety of knowing that there are places where they can turn,” he said.

But as the crisis becomes more urgent and the solutions become more creative, will Sacramento rally in support? Or will some continue in vain to try to push the problem elsewhere as the problem becomes worse?

Sacramento’s choices will set an example for the state. Let’s come together to do what’s necessary to provide dignity, compassion and shelter to all members of our community.

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