Every night, with depressing predictability, thousands of men, women and children go to sleep under bridges, on sidewalks, in cars and in crowded shelters in every major city in this country.
In San Francisco, the divide between the haves and have-nots has become so wide that about 6,000 people are outside, often screaming to themselves and urinating in the streets.
In Los Angeles, some 47,000 people pitch tents and crawl under benches nightly. That’s the population of a suburb.
This is not a new problem, of course. But things have gotten testy in those cities lately, with protesters staging marches down Hollywood Boulevard and fed-up news organizations suspending competition to blast coordinated coverage. In big cities in other states, discontent has grown, too.
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But let’s get real. Homelessness won’t be solved in megacities. Their problems are too big.
Not so for Sacramento.
With the right level of investment, the right strategy, the right dedication, the right people and the right collaboration, this city and county have a shot at succeeding where others fail. Seriously.
We know it’s tough to believe when the huddled masses seem to be multiplying along the American River Parkway, protesters are threatening to build tent cities, and city and county officials don’t seem to be cooperating. But Sacramento has the tools to make this happen: relatively low housing and land prices, a comparatively small number of homeless people, a solid economy and the ability to deploy small-city-style collaboration against big-city problems.
And more advantages may well be on their way – chief among them mayoral candidate Darrell Steinberg.
As the former Senate president loves to say on the campaign trail, Steinberg authored Proposition 63, a tax on the wealthy that funds mental health services. He’s also helping craft the “No Place Like Home” plan, under which the state would issue $2 billion in bonds to supply housing for California’s mentally ill homeless population.
Taken together, these measures will be what cities across the state rely on to reduce and prevent homelessness going forward. There’s something to be said for having the architect of both measures leading the charge locally.
“We know what works,” Steinberg said. “We just need to do more of it.”
Of course, it’s not entirely that simple. But he’s right that there is a proven formula for what works: intensive and persistent outreach, case management services, mental health and substance abuse counseling, and, most of all, fast and easy access to housing.
For evidence, look no further than the national decline in homelessness that has been happening since 2007.
You wouldn’t know it looking at California, though. More than 20 percent of the nation’s homeless population lives in this state and, in some areas, is actually growing.
A lot of this has to do with the housing crisis. Rent here is at least 50 percent higher than the national average. When a one-bedroom apartment is going for $3,500, it’s not hard for someone to miss rent and wind up on the streets.
But homelessness also is simply more visible. Decades ago, Americans were more interested in living in suburbs. Today, downtown is where it’s at. Vacant lots and abandoned buildings that no one used to care about, except for the homeless people who lived there, are now worth astronomical sums. In even the smallest cities, old warehouse districts boast apartments, restaurants and bars.
Young professionals and empty nesters are moving in, while poor and homeless people are being forced out – sometimes under a bridge a few streets over and sometimes out into the suburbs.
This brings more of us face to face with homelessness, and the mental illness that it can cause or be caused by. Because even for someone sane, the stress of trying to live out of a car or sleep under a bush can spiral into depression and anxiety, and then to drug and alcohol addiction.
Getting people off the streets and into mental hospitals, shelters and housing is great. But none of that is sustainable without an economy that allows people to become self-sufficient with a job and affordable housing.
This is where Sacramento has an edge. The cost of living isn’t ridiculous.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the key is funding. Not a preposterous level of funding, but more than is happening now.
It’s no coincidence that, nationally, the decline in homelessness happened after the federal government ramped up spending on homelessness to $4.5 billion in fiscal 2015 – the highest level in history. Sacramento has spent, but not with the boldness or intelligence the region is capable of.
After years of budget cuts, the county now allots about $45 million a year for everything from mental health services to shelters. The city chips in an additional $2.5 million for services – a figure that leaps to $13.6 million when you add in things like cleaning up illegal campsites.
Still, the city lacks emergency shelter space, and the waiting list for housing is far too long and far too tough to navigate. Those must be fixed.
If elected, Steinberg says he’s confident he can secure a lifeline of money quickly from the “No Place Like Home” plan to build housing for homeless people who are mentally ill. But beyond that, he looks at the funding as a way to spark a wave of new affordable housing and private housing that’s available for everyone.
The numbers are promising. In Sacramento, affordable housing costs $287,000 per unit to build, compared to a daunting $591,000 in San Francisco and $372,000 in Los Angeles.
That’s not nothing. But in a place like Sacramento, with the right troops and the right leader, it could make all the difference.