Erika D. Smith

So what if Sacramento declared a ‘shelter crisis’? If homeless people keep dying, blame NIMBYs

The day Melanie Gamboa showed up on the campus of Loaves & Fishes — her sister, her boyfriend and their four cats in tow — the staff of Maryhouse women’s shelter didn’t have anywhere to put them.

As is typically the case in Sacramento, all of the emergency beds had already been filled by other homeless people. So, having nowhere else to go, the trio and their pets joined the huddled masses across the street. They pitched a tent and that’s where they stayed for weeks, until the night Gamboa fell out of her wheelchair and couldn’t get up.

She died right there on the sidewalk, tucked in with a blanket, in the shadow of multiple of shelters, all of them full. She was 39.

“Homelessness equals life threatening,” Maryhouse’s director, Shannon Stevens, told me after a memorial service last month for Gamboa. “In this case, it took her life.”

And without some additional sacrifices by those of us fortunate enough to have homes, homelessness will continue to take lives in Sacramento. Don’t let the “shelter crisis” that the county Board of Supervisors declared last week or the one the Sacramento City Council is supposed to to declare next week fool you.

In theory, the city and county can now tap into nearly $20 million in state funding to open a triage shelter, expand family shelters and “scattered-site” shelters, create a “host home” program to get homeless teenagers indoors, and to launch a rental subsidy program to help people avoid becoming homeless in the first place.

But theory isn’t reality — and the reality is that, even with millions of dollars from the state, opening new shelters won’t actually happen unless residents decide to change their typically resistant, NIMBY ways.

Just ask Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Back in April, he was among the first mayors in California to declare a “shelter crisis,” making it easier to build them on land the city owns or leases. And the situation is dire, too. There are more than 25,000 people sleeping outdoors every night in L.A.

“This is the right thing to do,” Garcetti said at the time, according to Curbed Los Angeles. “It’s the moral thing to do.”

Tell that to the NIMBYs.

Last Wednesday, more than 400 people showed up to a town hall in Venice to yell at the mayor about his plan to open a shelter at a former bus yard. It’s one of a dozen new shelters he has in the works, at least four of which — in Koreatown, Sherman Oaks, Wilmington and San Pedro — have drawn angry rebukes from residents.

Never mind that poop and used syringes on sidewalks have become the norm. According to news reports, the meeting in Venice was marked by ridiculous comments like this one from resident Travis Binen: “You have transients here, and there’s going to be more of them if you put in this Ritz Carlton by the beach.”

Meanwhile, here in Sacramento, Mayor Darrell Steinberg has spent months negotiating with NIMBYs, trying nail down sites to erect three huge tent shelters that would offer services and a place to sleep for hundreds of homeless people. Adding to the challenge, several members of the City Council have refused to allow the shelters on city-owned parcels in their districts.

As Councilman Larry Carr put it at last Tuesday’s meeting: “I question whether the city should even be in the shelter business,” adding that Sacramento should be focusing on helping homeless people who are eager to help themselves. “If they don’t want to cooperate, if they don’t want to give up their drugs and their pit bulls...move them along.”

Move them along? To where? And for what?

Money is no longer an excuse. Sacramento has to do better than that, be bigger than that, to prevent people from living in alleys, under bridges and in tents so long that they die out there the way Gamboa did. Otherwise, we all can expect more memorial services at Maryhouse.

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

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