Homeless need all the help, funding they can get

Davida Gomez hugs her son, William Swilley, 5, before class at the Mustard Seed School. Gomez, who has three children, was homeless in July.
Davida Gomez hugs her son, William Swilley, 5, before class at the Mustard Seed School. Gomez, who has three children, was homeless in July. Sacramento Bee file

Once again, Sacramento County is headed into winter with its chilly temperatures and (hopefully) rain. And, once again, we’re faced with the dilemma of finding adequate shelter for the hundreds of men, women and children who live outdoors, sometimes with only a tent to separate them from the elements.

It’s a perennial problem, this housing of the homeless, and not much has been done to solve it. Not since the recession, anyway, when the county stopped funding its massive winter shelter at Cal Expo.

This year, however, Sacramento County supervisors have decided to rethink that shameful lack of action. On Tuesday, they carved out an additional $724,000 for wintertime homeless services.

Most of that money will go toward “rapid rehousing,” an expedited, if somewhat selective, program that provides a path toward permanent housing. A smaller amount will be used for motel vouchers. But, much to the ire of homeless advocates, none of the money will be used to provide beds at emergency shelters. Gone is a plan that would’ve given $131,500 to The Salvation Army for another 38 beds.

The supervisors stand by their decision, arguing that it’s time the county started funding real, long-term solutions for homelessness, not just short-term shelters that help for a night, but ultimately perpetuate the problem.

The homeless advocates agree housing is the long-term solution. However, with a rainy El Niño bearing down on Sacramento, they insist the county needs more than its current 573 beds in emergency shelters to handle the coming crush of vulnerable people.

Both arguments are valid. But both miss the larger point.

Sacramento County shouldn’t be making narrowly focused either/or choices about helping the homeless. The problem is too big and the cost of not solving it too great. That’s humanitarian costs, environmental costs and monetary costs: The city of Sacramento alone spends more than $13.6 million a year to address homelessness, including cleaning up encampments and transporting homeless people to hospitals.

To truly get people off the streets and keep others from ending up there, we need a combination of solutions. That means more access to rapid rehousing with supportive services, more hotel vouchers and, in the near term, more beds in our woefully inadequate nonprofit-run network of emergency shelters.

Even without a winter with an El Niño, Sacramento’s shelters don’t have a bed for every person who needs one. Collectively, they turn dozens, if not hundreds, of people away daily. To correct this, the county might want to reconsider the shelter at Cal Expo, if there’s a way to make it financially feasible, if not this year, then next year.

The Sacramento City Council also should approve a request this Tuesday for $600,000 from the St. John’s Program for Real Change. The investment would help the nonprofit buy and convert an adjacent building to expand its transitional housing program for women and children.

Not everyone is ready to become self-sufficient and take on the stability of permanent housing, without proper services. Many homeless people have mental health issues, addiction problems, or are lacking proper credit or identification.

For these suffering but hard-to-direct people, particularly adults, shelters can provide a safe, temporary refuge, and sometimes even create a point of contact where outreach workers can start a conversation that might lead to a more permanent placement. A motel, paid for with a voucher, might be more ideal and cost effective for homeless families.

But every little bit counts. The supervisors have now spent $17 million this year on homeless services and, after years of inaction, we commend them for it. It’s a good first step, but it’s not enough.