Crisis Management

Has city found a strategy for homelessness?

By R.E. Graswich
January 2023

I don’t want to shock anyone, but the new year brings the chance that City Hall will stumble into a way to control and even reduce homelessness. This revelation follows the embrace of a tool other cities have deployed for years.
It’s called a Homeless Management Information System, or HMIS. The idea is obvious: coordinate services, outcomes and data involving homeless people. That’s about it.

There’s nothing new about coordinating housing and mental health services for people who live on the streets or in shelters. Integrated management systems have been around for years. Semi-annual homeless counts are one example of coordination.

But for reasons that have nothing to do with homelessness and everything to do with politics, Sacramento city, county and state authorities only got serious about their coordinated management information system in December. That’s right, December 2022.

If this sounds like shutting the gate after the cattle have scattered, the frustration is understandable.

For years observers on the ground complained about bureaucratic disconnects that made homeless solutions not elusive but impossible. Foremost among those failures was lack of coordination among service providers.

A decade ago, when I played host for a local radio program, I interviewed a guy who worked with homeless people. I can’t remember his name, but he was an academic researcher with an advanced degree in social work. He studied the homeless problem from street level to the state Capitol.

I’ll never forget what he said when I asked what’s the biggest obstacle to getting these people off the streets and into a dignified existence.

Me: “Is it money?”

Him: “No, it’s not money. It’s the lack of coordination of services. The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.”

It’s never been about money. The homeless crisis has been a resilient, productive financial engine for California. It ignores economic gravity. It thrives regardless of pandemic, recession or inflation, fueled by lousy or nonexistent coordination among service providers. Dollars flow in and disappear. Things get worse. Repeat.

In Sacramento, where the homeless population grew from about 2,700 in 2016 to almost 10,000 last year, millions of dollars were wasted on localized, piecemeal approaches to shelter, transitional housing, permanent housing, and treatment for addiction and mental health. Troubles grew as services expanded.

An old-fashioned editorial cartoon would illustrate what I’m saying. Picture Mayor Darrell Steinberg and eight City Council members shoveling a pile of dollars into a raging furnace. Flames spell the word “homelessness.” The caption says, “Whistle while you work.”

That’s not how things work in San Antonio. The Texas city leads the nation in homeless solutions and re-housing thanks to Haven for Hope, a centralized campus that provides coordinated care for homeless people. Sacramento leaders visited Haven for Hope. They admired its triumphs. Inside Sacramento profiled Haven’s success in these pages.

Haven for Hope opened in 2010. The facility is divided into two sections, the Courtyard and Transformational Campus.
The Courtyard is a no-frills shelter that takes anyone, including stoned campers moved by police. It’s clean and safe, nothing more. The Transformational Campus presents another world: drug treatment, education, jobs, housing, childcare, even dog kennels.

The key is, clients must agree to enter the Transformational side and participate in their own recovery. They aren’t treated like helpless children as they are in Sacramento.

The Haven for Hope model would resolve Sacramento’s homeless problem. But the city and county can’t agree on a site. They’ve talked for years but can’t work out the details, which swirl around control of $1 billion the county dispenses each year for health and human services.

Worse, the city has lurched in the opposite direction. Steinberg proposed disparate homeless services scattered around town—the reverse of Haven for Hope and coordinated services. His chaotic plan delivered nothing. Sometimes voters trust the wrong politician.

On the bright side, Sacramento’s new Homeless Management Information System is an essential ingredient in the Haven for Hope model. Real coordination is a good start for the city, county and state. What’s needed next is a courtyard and transitional campus to finish the job.

R.E. Graswich can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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