‘A’ For Effort

But city’s homeless plan still must deliver

By Gary Delsohn
October 2021

William S. White, a journalist who spent much of his career writing about Lyndon Johnson, called the late president and U.S. Senate leader an expert at “politics as the art of the possible.”

That was before partisan media and ideological zealots turned compromise into a dirty word. But the description came to mind recently as I read Sacramento’s “2021 Master Siting Plan to Address Homelessness.”

It’s easy to dwell on what the $100 million plan unanimously approved by the City Council in August fails to do. The plan underscores how the city and county must chip in if we hope to solve this crisis. But some of Sacramento’s best neighborhoods—Land Park, Curtis Park, East Sacramento, Pocket-Greenhaven and North Natomas—don’t appear to be pitching in much.

That could change as implementation moves forward. But a Sacramento Bee editorial that correctly calls the plan a “breakthrough” may also be right when it says the plan “furthers inequality.”

Cynics might question Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s courage for presenting the plan as a take-it-or-leave-it single vote. The plan identifies nearly two dozen sites—most publicly owned—for shelters, tiny homes, and tent and parking encampments. Once the City Council certified its approval, debate effectively ended. Next step is implementation. No more arguments about sites.

Patterned after the congressional commission that identified military base closures in the 1990s and presented them to Congress as a package deal, Steinberg said he pushed the one-vote idea to avoid “Not In My Back Yard” squabbles that make it hard to get single sites approved.

That’s where the “art of the possible” comes in. There was nothing nefarious or sinister in approaching the master plan this way. The plan is hardly the “deceptive and dangerous con job” it’s been called by the California Homeless Union and its local affiliate.

Those organizations do good work, but they embarrass themselves by claiming the homeless site plan is designed to “enrich wealthy contractors (and) strengthen the hand of the homeless industrial complex in controlling the unhoused.”

I understand why those organizations are uncomfortable with Steinberg’s intention to push for a city ordinance that would require the unhoused to accept shelter or face repercussions. But to slam the entire plan is an overreach. Steinberg, who came into office with the vow to resolve the homeless crisis, isn’t making grandiose promises.

In a video created before the plan was approved, the mayor said the proposal is “not going to cure the problem because that is too much to promise, but we can make it better for thousands of people and the city.”

If the master plan succeeds in getting more than 9,000 people off the streets annually, as Steinberg hopes, and if it delivers enough mental health and other services, it will be a big step forward.

At the same time, the plan raises questions that cannot be immediately answered. Such as what happens when much of the $100 million runs out? The money is one-time dollars from federal pandemic relief sources and state surpluses.

Will we see follow-through on promises to provide mental health services and help for drug and alcohol abusers? Will there be adequate job training for people who are homeless due to economic circumstances? Can the city do enough to make permanent housing more affordable so more people can pay for their homes?

Reading the report, it’s hard not to be struck by the community outreach, thoughtfulness and earnest intentions. The $100 million budget is impressive, as are the plan’s comprehensive and strategic elements that distinguish it from earlier iterations and from what many other cities are doing.

Steinberg and his fellow council members deserve an “A” for effort and all that’s gone into their work. But in the end, this plan, like others before that were nowhere near as comprehensive or well financed, will be judged on whether the public sees fewer homeless encampments disrupting life for the rest of us.

Gary Delsohn can be reached at gdelsohn@gmail.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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