Erika D. Smith

Care about Sacramento? This is why we can’t let the homeless-hating NIMBYs win

'It’s such a huge blessing to have a home, an actual home'

Jenna LeClerc recounts her family's days of living out of a van, and the help they received as they transitioned back to having a home.
Up Next
Jenna LeClerc recounts her family's days of living out of a van, and the help they received as they transitioned back to having a home.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg came to Tuesday night’s City Council meeting ready to do battle with the NIMBYs of North Sacramento. It is, after all, a time-honored tradition of California politics, a mayor trying to reason with a mob of overly parochial, not-in-my-backyarders who want nothing to do with anything new in their neighborhood.


But something unusual happened. Faced with Steinberg’s plan to allow a controversial homeless shelter to stay open a few more months instead of closing, as planned, at the end of March, no one from the public complained.

You read that right. No one.

Not residents from the notoriously NIMBYish neighborhood of Woodlake, which hated the idea of the shelter opening in a warehouse on nearby Railroad Drive in the first place. Not anyone from the Del Paso Boulevard Partnership, which has repeatedly – and understandably – complained about a lack of transparency from city officials.

Only Councilwoman Angelique Ashby was skeptical, saying that “there’s a lot of room for improvement.” Which, I’m sure there is. A woman staying at the shelter was rushed to the hospital and died. There have been fistfights and standoffs between dogs crammed in a makeshift kennel.

But where are all the NIMBYs? Is this not California?

Admittedly, I could be getting ahead of myself. On Thursday, residents will gather at the Artisan Theatre at Real Life Church on Del Paso Boulevard to hear the city’s long-term plan for the temporary shelter and the timeline for a permanent shelter that was supposed to replace it. The NIMBYs will undoubtedly show up and sparks will almost certainly fly.

But the optimist in me wants to believe it’s finally sinking in that while California’s cities can’t do everything that’s needed to end homelessness, they must do something.

In Sacramento, that means making it easy to open a network of triage shelters in neighborhoods across the city. The good news for NIMBYs is that, as a test case, Railroad Drive hasn’t been that bad. Not only did crime in surrounding North Sacramento neighborhoods drop by almost 50 percent, thanks in large part to the stepped-up police presence, but so did the number of homeless people on the streets because many of them were given beds.

That’s not to say things have gone perfectly. Housing is still scarce and there aren’t nearly enough resources to meet the need. But “perfect” shouldn’t be the expectation after so many years of Sacramento doing next to nothing. Change takes time.

“But if we aren’t aggressive on our own,” Steinberg said from the dais on Tuesday night, then the problem of homelessness “is inevitably going to grow worse.”

Already in Sacramento County alone, some 2,000 men, women and children sleep outside every night, and another 1,500 or so have roofs over their heads, but no permanent housing. Those of us who live in the central city understand these statistics all too well.

One night last week, as the temperature dropped into the 30s, my partner and I came home to find a middle-aged man sprawled on the concrete between the bumper of my neighbor’s SUV and the garage door. He told us his name was Carlos. He showed us his bum knee and asked if we had any prescription pain pills or could take him to the hospital. We gave him some ice and some Advil instead.

Before Carlos, it was Bobby. And before Bobby, it was an old man who never shared his name, but confessed that he liked the safety of our apartment building’s motion-sensitive security lights. He hasn’t been back in months. We’re pretty sure he’s dead.

I see that desperation in the data the city collected at the Railroad Drive shelter.

Of the 264 people who stayed there between Dec. 8 and Feb. 16, about half were older than 50, about 90 percent were living with some sort of disability, and most had been homeless for about four years. One man said he’d been living outside for 40 years, as long as I’ve been alive.

Until California gets its act together, ideally by clearing hurdles to build more housing and by redirecting part of the budget surplus to cities and counties to deal with the escalating cost of mitigating homelessness, none of this will change in a meaningful way. But Sacramento, like other cities across the state, can nip around the edges of the problem with better outreach, mental health and substance abuse services, the construction of tiny homes and, yes, emergency shelters.

Remember that, NIMBYs.

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

Related stories from Sacramento Bee