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Homeless Numbers Jump
BUT MAYOR SEES HOPE IN CITY’S RESPONSE TO CRISIS
By Darrell Steinberg
This past week we received some sobering but hopeful news about homelessness in our city and county.
The results from the latest count of Sacramento’s homeless population are in, and they show that while the statewide crisis continues, we are making progress in getting the most chronically homeless people off the street and into permanent housing.
Conducted over two nights in January with more than 900 volunteers, the 2019 Point in Time Count found 5,570 homeless people in Sacramento County. That figure is up 19 percent from 2017, factoring in the more thorough nature of this year’s count.
Any increase is disappointing, but the numbers also contain hopeful signs. The percentage of homeless people living outside who met the definition of being chronically homeless declined by 7 percent. This change shows that our strategy of targeting the most chronically homeless with services and shelter is beginning to work, and we need to take it to scale.
As I will detail below, not only is building shelter to scale the right thing to do, it is the only way we can legally clean up homeless encampments.
During my term as mayor, we have set a new direction and amassed almost $100 million going forward from state, local, federal and private sources to combat this crisis, which is not unique to Sacramento. Our city-county efforts helped get 3,600 homeless people housed in 2018 alone.
We are making progress on new shelters. The former Capitol Park Hotel is scheduled to open in August as a temporary homeless shelter with 180 rooms. It will be converted to permanent supportive housing after operating for about 15 months.
In about nine months, we expect to open a new shelter on land leased from Caltrans alongside the W/X freeway near Alhambra. We are negotiating with Cal Expo to lease a parking lot near Ethan Way to erect a shelter to house 100 people. And we will soon announce a proposed site where we can erect a shelter quickly in south Sacramento.
We need to take what we have started and invest real resources. We can’t wish away this problem. Big societal forces are at work here—mental illness, addiction and sky-high housing prices. It’s going to take a big effort by our society to make things better.
Some residents of Land Park have consistently written me and said this isn’t a housing problem; it’s an out-of-control drug problem.
I agree the homeless people who plague our neighborhoods with drug-related behavior need more than just shelter or housing.
They need intensive drug treatment. We need more tools to force those who are unwilling to get that treatment to do so. In the State Legislature, I authored the 2013 bill to allow counties to spend state Mental Health Services Act money on forced enrollment in treatment.
I agree our police officers need more enforcement tools at the local and state levels. I will work with my fellow big city mayors to provide those tools.
Our most urgent need is to give law enforcement the ability to clean up and remove the tents and camps, which are too prevalent in our city.
That urgent need ironically depends on our following through with aggressively increasing our shelter bed capacity.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2018 that cities cannot move homeless people from their chosen encampments unless cities have available shelter space. In that case, the majority of the justices concurred that “the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment bars a city from prosecuting people criminally for sleeping outside on public property when those people have no home or other shelter to go to.”
Once we show a court we have sufficient shelter, we can be much more assertive in enforcing our ban on camping outdoors in our city’s parks, on our sidewalks and other public spaces.
People will rightfully ask how the Point in Time Count survey could find chronic homelessness going down while the overall homeless numbers are going up. The answer is that we have a housing crisis. Too many people are becoming homeless because of high housing prices.
This reality is reflected in the growing number of homeless families. The 2019 count found 372 homeless families with a total of 688 children under the age of 18. More than half were unsheltered, spending the night outdoors, in a vehicle or motel room obtained with a temporary voucher.
Our City Council decision two weeks ago to create a $100-million housing trust fund could not be more timely. We must follow through aggressively to put these resources to use and build more affordable housing so we can prevent more families from slipping into homelessness.
Contrary to some common misconceptions, homeless people are not migrating to Sacramento in significant numbers. Ninety-three percent of those surveyed in the Point in Time Count said they were originally from Sacramento or were long-term residents.
The city of Sacramento didn’t have money to do anything much about homelessness when I took office in 2017. Now we do, thanks to new state resources raised through my participation in the California Big City Mayors group, the passage of Measure U and private donations.
I will continue to update you at every opportunity. Please continue to put forward your thoughts and ideas.
Darrell Steinberg is Mayor of Sacramento. Reach him at (916) 808-5300.