Erika D. Smith

Erika D. Smith: Chief probation officer tries to help the homeless

David Elliott, a homeless services navigator with Sacramento Steps Forward, talks to Tom, a homeless man who had fallen asleep in Marshall Park. Elliott and other navigators walk the streets five days a week to make sure homeless people have the services they need.
David Elliott, a homeless services navigator with Sacramento Steps Forward, talks to Tom, a homeless man who had fallen asleep in Marshall Park. Elliott and other navigators walk the streets five days a week to make sure homeless people have the services they need. esmith@sacbee.com

I’m sad to say it was one of the first things I noticed about Sacramento.

The homeless people.

The men in grungy clothing sleeping off a buzz at Cesar Chavez Park Plaza. The women with obvious mental health issues shouting at no one in particular from the steps of the Sacramento Public Library. The people pushing creaky carts full of what looks like junk, but are probably their life’s possessions.

As a new resident, I spent a good month shaking my head in disbelief, even as I watched others who work downtown, lawmakers and lobbyists alike, breeze on by without so much as a backward glance.

It’s a scene I expected to see in San Francisco, as I have in New York and Chicago, not in the much smaller capital city of California. But when I realized the Sacramento County Main Jail was downtown, on I and Sixth streets, it all made sense.

Here, as in so many cities, jails are a generator of homelessness. How big of a generator, no one here really knows. But people get arrested and released. Some have no place to go or money to get there.

They might have a substance abuse problem. They might have an untreated mental illness. And so they hang out. They get into trouble. They are at a higher risk of committing crimes and of becoming victims of crime.

“We know from the science and the research that the first 72 hours after release from custody is when the risk for recidivism is highest,” said Lee Seale, Sacramento County chief probation officer. “People are going to use drugs, they’re going to binge. It’s an explosive activity, most of it not positive."

Jails are the dark corners of increasingly bright urban centers that people of sound mind and full bank accounts love to pretend don’t exist – usually at the expense of public safety and quality of life.

That’s why I was excited to hear about a pilot program from Seale’s forward-thinking Probation Department. Not only is it designed to reduce the number of homeless people milling about downtown, but it’s designed to help people get back on their feet.

You see, for a long time, Sacramento County did something dumb.

Day after day, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department would transport inmates scheduled for release from the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove up to the main jail in downtown Sacramento. Deputies would release people from custody – sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes with only a paper jumpsuit for clothing, no money, no friends or family, and no place to go until a probation office opened miles away at sunrise.

Jerry Brown’s criminal justice realignment has complicated things. Now the jail is releasing people who become hardened after spending years in prison, are on probation and have no support systems. Add to that the high percentage of jail bookings – and subsequent releases – that involve the use of methamphetamine, and you get an idea of what’s been happening around the jail downtown.

Seale is trying to change that.

Working with the Sheriff’s Department, he has managed to get inmates who are on probation brought directly to a probation office rather than to the main jail. And they are arriving in the morning, so intake officers have all day to find housing and other support services.

“If they have to show up here,” Seale said of probation offices, “why are we releasing them downtown and letting them get into trouble for 48 hours and then maybe finding their way, one way or another, to check in?”

It’s an obvious hole in the system and I’m amazed no one thought to fix it before.

For now, it’s just a pilot program. But so far, so good. The number of people participating is small, fewer than a dozen of the dozens of people who are released from the main jail each day. But Seale says he hopes to expand the program over time.

Who knows if it will make a significant dent in Sacramento’s homeless population. People who, when you cut to the chase, are simply trying to make ends meet, trying to make life work, as best they can. But even if this program only affects a few people, it’s the right thing to do.

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

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