Even with data, solution for homelessness remains elusive

A homeless man sleeps under a tree.
A homeless man sleeps under a tree. Belleville News-Democrat

What’s the best way end homelessness? It sounds like a rhetorical question. But for months, Sacramento Steps Forward, the nonprofit charged with coordinating efforts to do just that in Sacramento city and county, has been promising an answer.

This week, it finally released its first batch of data. The results, compiled from months of on-street interviews by outreach workers, are not unexpected, but also are, in some ways, heartening.

We all can see that hundreds of homeless men and women are living outdoors in Sacramento County. Most of them are “highly vulnerable” and chronically homeless, meaning they haven’t had permanent housing for at least a year. Many have physical or mental disabilities, or are addicted to drugs or alcohol.

The surprisingly good news, though, is that most of the people in this category – about 960 countywide, according to Sacramento Steps Forward – would accept help to get off the streets if they could find their way to it. And some are indeed being directed to housing.

They aren’t like Genny Lucchesi, the 77-year-old chronically homeless woman profiled by The Bee’s Cynthia Hubert. Lucchesi died in her sleeping bag in a parking lot after a long descent into mental illness and a stubborn refusal to accept treatment. These extreme cases exist, as the families of homeless loved ones would surely attest, but are the exception, not the rule.

That’s certainly cause for hope and it’s more information than we knew before. But it’s still not quite enough to create sound public policy or to make fully informed decisions about funding.

It’s not enough to agree, as most county and city officials do, that more mental health services are needed to reduce homelessness when no one knows exactly how many homeless people have mental health issues or what the scope of those issues are. Are most people suffering from schizophrenia? Or do most suffer from mild depression brought on by months of living outdoors? The same goes for addiction treatment services.

Sacramento Steps Forward promises to deliver more data in the coming months and we encourage the nonprofit to hurry. Until that happens, the city and county can only continue to chip away at homelessness with motel vouchers, a “rapid rehousing” program for people who are somewhat self-sufficient, and a federally funded permanent supportive housing program for those who are less stable.

So far, that effort is working well for veterans and, to some extent, the chronically homeless. But next year, Sacramento Steps Forward warns, there will be a gap of 700 “highly vulnerable” people in need of housing.

To close that gap, we need more services and more data. That’s the only feasible way to truly understand the problem of homelessness and get people off the streets once and for all.