Homeless and Helpless
Leaders slow to take action in crisis
By R.E. Graswich
Sacramento has a gift for growing smart, experienced local political leaders. Mayor Darrell Steinberg served at the highest levels of California governance. County Board of Supervisors Chair Phil Serna was raised in a home led by two educators, one of whom was mayor.
But somehow, local leaders are struck dumb by homelessness.
Five years ago, when Steinberg decided to run for mayor, he built his campaign around solutions for homelessness. He promised to resolve the problem during his first two years. From every perspective, he’s failed.
Serna has performed no better. During his 10 years as a supervisor, he’s been the county’s point man on homelessness. Despite countless media appearances and endless pronouncements, Serna has overseen an explosion in the unsheltered population. Like Steinberg, he’s failed.
The coronavirus pandemic made this ugly situation worse. In mid-March, Gov. Gavin Newsom rolled out a $150 million strategy to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the homeless population.
The plan was simple. It involved getting unsheltered people off the street by moving them into motels and camp trailers. Counties across the state quickly executed the design.
Within days, hundreds of homeless people were placed in safer, cleaner environments throughout a diverse range of locations, from Fresno to Ventura and San Diego to Santa Clara.
In Sacramento, nothing happened.
Weeks passed. The virus spread. More Californians died. And Sacramento’s homeless people mingled in their street shelters and tents along the river—conditions perfect for contagion.
Pressed for explanations, Serna played defense. He made excuses. He said the county was being “deliberate” and claimed it would be “foolish” for Sacramento to rush into quick solutions without planning for longer-term consequences.
Under normal circumstances, deliberation, coordination and planning are good things. Sacramento would not suffer today from its massive homeless problem had the city and county done better in the areas of deliberation, coordination and planning.
Ten years ago, I worked in Mayor Kevin Johnson’s office when we created Sacramento Steps Forward, a nonprofit to coordinate homeless assistance programs.
In those days, the county controlled public health dollars to combat homelessness. The city had the biggest homeless problem, but none of the money. And there were church groups and charities and the housing authority and for-profit companies all trying to help. Sacramento Steps Forward was envisioned as a clearinghouse for solutions.
One day, I asked my colleague Andie Corso, an extraordinarily smart woman who oversaw Sacramento Steps Forward in the mayor’s office, whether Sacramento had enough money to end homelessness. She smiled and said, “There’s plenty of money to end homelessness. Money’s not the problem.” The problem, she said, was where and how it’s spent.
Today I think of Andie’s comment every time I see a homeless person. Mountains of dollars have been wasted to resolve the homeless crisis in Sacramento, only to make things worse. Careers have been built, organizations enriched. Money’s not the problem.
Sacramento Steps Forward survived several iterations. Now the nonprofit is a major portal through which public dollars flow to combat homelessness. The latest windfall includes about $4.3 million for the city and county to rent motel rooms and manage a homeless trailer park at Cal Expo to house people during the coronavirus crisis.
Local officials rented about 220 motel rooms for the most desperate cases. The state earmarked 63 trailers for the emergency campground at Cal Expo. Another several hundred beds have been identified. But the numbers are nowhere near enough to move Sacramento’s nearly 6,000 homeless people into sanitary conditions.
Serna is right to be deliberative, but coronavirus won’t wait. If hundreds of homeless people get sick and require local ICU beds and medical staffing and equipment, the time for deliberation will be over.
R.E. Graswich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.