Erika D. Smith

Overcoming the dysfunction on homelessness

Nearly four hours into Tuesday night’s marathon joint session on homelessness between the Sacramento City Council and Sacramento County supervisors, Councilman Larry Carr asked a seemingly simple question.

What would happen to disabled people?

In other words, if he and others on the dais passed a pair of resolutions to push homeless people to the front of the line for subsidized housing, would people with a disabilities who’ve been waiting years for assistance get bumped to the back of the line?

La Shelle Dozier, executive director of the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, took a stab at an answer.

“Well,” she said, shifting in her seat a bit, “there’s no reason why you couldn’t go ahead and give the (housing) preference for homeless as well as disabled. Disabled is actually already a preference, which is why we have so many families (on the list with) a disability. But essentially you would be weighting the preferences, so you are really trying to get to those individuals who are homeless. But we know from our experience that individuals who are homeless most likely have a disability as well.”

Carr seemed to take that in. “What about the elderly? Same thing?” Dozier: “Yeah.”

Carr: “What about children?” Dozier: “There isn’t a preference for children.”

Carr: “Veterans?” Dozier: “There is a preference for veterans.”

“And a separate (rental assistance) voucher category for veterans,” Mayor Darrell Steinberg chimed in. Carr looked understandably lost, and Dozier tried to clarify. “There’s a separate voucher category,” she said, “but some of the wait lists also give veterans preference as well.” (That’s “lists,” as in 11 of them.)

Carr ventured: “But we would still have preferences for the elderly and people with disabilities?”

Dozier: “You could still have those, but if the intent is to really get to those people who are chronically homeless on the street, you need to weigh that preference higher than anything else ... Does that make sense?”

Clearly it didn’t, but Carr let it go: “I hear you.”

Welcome to the confusing mess that is Sacramento’s system for getting homeless people into housing and preventing others from becoming homeless in the first place.

There’s a reason why if you ask a homeless person whether he or she is on an SHRA waiting list for housing, you’re likely to get an answer like, “Um, I think so…?” Or, “Well, I was. I don’t know if I am anymore.” And why few seem to know where they stand on the list, regardless of whether they are a veteran or have a disability.

Understanding the various rules and deadlines – not to mention changing political directives from on high – is akin to reading tea leaves with red tape slapped over one’s eyes. Not surprisingly, there are relatively few people in the county who can do it effectively.

But it just so happened that many of them came downtown Tuesday night to watch the city and the county debate how to tweak that system yet again.

Steinberg and the City Council passed a resolution that jump-starts the process to set aside 1,600 federal housing vouchers and 200 subsidized housing units for homeless people over the next two years. The more cautious Board of Supervisors passed its own resolution that directs staff to study the plan and report back by March.

It’s a bold effort that’s long overdue. But neither resolution, city or county, does much to address the institutional dysfunction and turmoil that seems to undermine every politically heroic attempt to address homelessness.

Indeed, the most illuminating thing about Tuesday’s joint meeting – the first in 20 years, for which people packed the county chambers, the lobby and two overflow rooms just to watch – was that housed people in Sacramento got to see the mess that homeless people and their advocates deal with every day.

The warring agendas. Some people on the dais wanted tent cities first. Others wanted to preserve transitional housing. Still others, a triage center. Shelters were in the mix, too. Steinberg just wanted his housing vouchers and subsidized units.

From the outset of the discussion, it was clear that every elected cook was in the kitchen. Not to mention the opinions espoused by the more than 100 people who got up to speak, including the heads of numerous nonprofits, trade groups and associations that deal with housing and homeless people.

But the murky way SHRA operates was a recurring theme of the discussion.

Supervisor Patrick Kennedy, while professing no “predisposed position” on the matter, asked for guidance on whether the agency should be outright dissolved, or broken up with some of its duties returned to the county. Others on the dais, while not ready to point a finger at SHRA publicly, are wary of how the agency runs, too.

Whether SHRA is truly at fault is a matter for some debate.

It’s true that at last count, some 70,000 people were on its waiting lists. By the time housing becomes available, the agency won’t be able to find as many as 10 percent of the applicants, which is nuts.

But this is also an agency that has to abide by rules set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. And it is tasked with putting tens of thousands of people – many of them in need of county-funded mental health and addiction services – into apartments and houses that simply don’t exist and probably won’t any time soon.

Sacramento is one of the hottest rental markets in the country. The vacancy rate is less than 5 percent citywide and unlikely to budge in the short term.

Getting the entire City Council and Board of Supervisors into a room to talk for six hours was no easy feat. And from the sound of things Tuesday night, the conversation will only get harder. But credit all involved for taking the first step on a long road toward actually doing something about homelessness.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith

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