Erika D. Smith

Help is finally on the way for homeless in Sacramento. So why are we still fighting again?

Mayor Darrell Steinberg listens to City Council member Jay Schenirer at Sacramento City Hall.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg listens to City Council member Jay Schenirer at Sacramento City Hall.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg had just finished crowing excitedly from the dais on Thursday when Bob Erlenbusch, the executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, pushed open the doors of the City Council chambers and grimaced.

How do you feel about what happened in there, I asked.

With a unanimous vote, council members had just decided to declare an “emergency shelter crisis” for December through March, allowing the city to receive part of $553 million in state funding. The $7.7 million coming to Sacramento will be used to open more triage shelters.

“It’s disappointing,” said Erlenbusch, who for years has pushed the city and the county to do more for homeless people. And I nodded because he’s right.

Declaring a citywide shelter crisis for only three months instead of the full year doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Neither does shying away from using the legal loopholes that come along with such a declaration, allowing cities to bypass zoning restrictions and let homeless people stay in places that NIMBYs would otherwise be able to block.

But, alas, this is how public policy debates tend to go in Sacramento. And, lately as I prepare to leave Sacramento for Los Angeles, I’ve found myself oddly grateful for it.

In a nation where people seem divided in every possible way — something that was made all too clear with the results on Election Day — it’s worth appreciating that, in this city, most of our arguments aren’t over core values or goals, but over process and strategy. Sacramentans don’t really differ over what to do, but how to do it.

How fast? Or how slow?

How orderly? Or how brazenly?

How much? Or how little?

No one in Sacramento, for example, wants people to be homeless, living in a tent under a bridge, in an alley or along the American River Parkway. But not everyone is eager to have a pop-up Sprung emergency shelter in his or her neighborhood, as Steinberg has warned could be in the works when he announces a list of potential sites next month.

And no one wants to see families and elderly tenants on fixed incomes priced out of their apartments and forced onto the streets — or into cheaper parts of the city, displacing other residents. Everyone wants more affordable housing. But, given the abject failure of Proposition 10 to free cities from the restrictions of the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, it’s clear not everyone is OK with rent control as a solution.

Over time, these disagreements over public policy have led, at least in part, to a breakdown in civility. Even before Sacramento police shot Stephon Clark in March and protesters descended on City Hall, it was pretty typical for advocates for the homeless to get kicked out of council meetings for refusing to stop talking when their time for comment was up, or for cursing or interrupting discussions at the dais by booing.

Councilman Larry Carr addressed this phenomenon in an op-ed for The Bee a couple of months ago.

“I call upon all those addressing the council to follow some simple rules,” he wrote. “Ensure their issue is within the city’s jurisdiction. Speak without using vulgarity or disparaging others. Respect the rights of others to speak without interruption, even if their opinions differ. Read and comply with the council rules of decorum.”

This isn’t helpful.

Lecturing adults like children, patronizing them and telling them to behave will only accomplish the opposite. And council members talking over people, or ignoring them by having side conversations or leaving the room entirely, will just make the usual gaggle of people who show up to speak, week after week, dig in their heels even more.

That said, those speakers who resort to personal attacks — or use their two minutes at the microphone to play the guitar, as happened a couple of weeks ago — aren’t being particularly helpful either. Dropping an f-bomb might feel good, but it doesn’t make anyone’s point more valid to the City Council.

But again, what makes these weekly standoffs truly ridiculous is that, for the most part, everyone is on the same side — particularly when it comes to homelessness and housing. There is no need to be at each other’s throats.

To find a way to work together, the mayor and City Council should dig deep and find the courage to climb out from behind the dais and hold workshops or town halls out in the community. If they do that and take heat from residents on a different turf, they will disrupt the natural power dynamic of City Hall and then they might see more of what I saw on Thursday.

That was when James “Faygo” Clark, a homeless advocate who has pushed the limits of Steinberg’s patience on multiple occasions in his quest to scrap the city’s anti-camping ordinance, strode to the microphone and struck a surprisingly conciliatory tone.

“The fact,” he said, “that we’re even talking about declaring a shelter crisis — finally — after advocates have been talking about it and asking for it for years, I’m very hopeful for that.”

Then the mayor interrupted him. So much for decorum.

Erika D. Smith: @Erika_D_Smith.