Getting Worse

County hires homeless chief. Will it matter?

By Howard Schmidt
September 2021

The federally mandated headcount of homeless individuals in Sacramento County was last conducted in 2019. It revealed more than 5,500 people experienced homelessness on a given night. This year’s count was canceled by the pandemic.

While the 2019 survey showed an increase of nearly 20 percent from 2017, residents don’t need an official report to know homelessness continues to grow.

Evidence can be seen at camps along the American River Parkway, on commercial corridors and other locations within the urban core and suburban unincorporated areas.

Emily Halcon is the newly appointed director of homeless initiatives for Sacramento County. She has more than 15 years of experience dealing with homeless programs. Halcon worked six years as homeless services manager for the city of Sacramento.

Wish her luck in her new job. She needs it.

During the winter, the city and county were both criticized for the lack of available shelters following six homeless deaths in a January storm. After the deaths were discovered, Interim County Executive Ann Edwards told Capitol Public Radio the county coroner explained there was no reason to believe the “storm was the cause of death for any person.”

For years, homeless advocates urged city and county leaders to open emergency shelters throughout the year. Oppressive summer temperatures have prompted both jurisdictions to address heat emergencies more frequently by opening cooling centers or offering motel vouchers to homeless persons.

In September, the Board of Supervisors is expected to adopt its final 2021-22 budget. Among the anticipated programs is an Alternative Emergency Response to people experiencing mental health issues in the unincorporated area and all cities except Sacramento, which has a separate program. The alternative response strives to keep police away from homeless calls, replaced by mental health professionals and social workers.

Many of these calls likely involve homeless persons suffering episodes related to mental illness, drugs, alcohol or a combination. But will the new approach work?

Earlier this year, Honolulu was going to eliminate police from most homeless calls and rely on social service and health workers to handle the reports. The idea was to free up Honolulu cops by not having them respond to nonviolent, homeless-related matters.

But Honolulu quickly modified its plan—even before the program got off the ground. Officials realized the proposal was too dangerous for non-police. Now a team of social workers and health care workers will respond to homeless calls, backed up by cops.

Since early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Sacramento County’s public health orders allowed homeless persons to live in vehicles and tents without penalty. Implementation effectively banned camp removals, although clearances were allowed if they threatened infrastructure or posed a public safety risk.

According to county insiders, the removal option was rarely exercised.

The latest public health order pertaining to homeless camps expired in June. That did not result in camps being automatically removed, but some county residents say a few have been cleared out.

The continuing presence of homeless with their tents, possessions and debris has generated public demand for officials to address the problem. The Los Angeles City Council this summer approved a sweeping ordinance to restrict homeless encampments in certain areas and away from schools, day care facilities, parks and libraries.

In Sacramento, county sources doubt there is the political will to follow L.A.’s lead. Current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends allowing camps to remain intact to discourage the spread of COVID-19 and the Delta variant.

Will that change? Probably not. The big question is what tools will the Board of Supervisors give Emily Halcon to be successful in her new position?

Howard Schmidt has worked on the federal, state and local levels of government, including 16 years for Sacramento County. He can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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