Drug has deadly consequence for homeless
By Craig Powell
I can’t visit my local Starbucks in East Sacramento or Old Soul coffee in Oak Park without panhandlers aggressively hitting me up for money. Or exit my local grocery store. Or take a freeway offramp. Often there are two beggars on my local offramp, one working each side.
I can’t drive down Alhambra Boulevard without seeing sidewalk homeless encampments or observing the slow progress made by homeless people pushing shopping carts piled high.
I receive regular complaints from residents of a rental property I own in Midtown. They cite alley encampments and endless piles of garbage. One group of squatters broke the lock on our garage and set up house for two months. Whenever we politely ask homeless people to move off our property, their response is often angry and sometimes disturbing.
This past week a resident sent me two photos she took from her apartment window. The first was of a man injecting drugs into his arm. The second, shot a few minutes later, was of the same addict as he dropped his trousers and inserted drugs in his backside.
Our son walks our dog in McKinley Park. He’s identified 10 homeless residents living in the 32-acre park, plus a population of large rats. We’ve set rodent traps around our home.
City government has lost control of McKinley. While legions of folks stroll and jog around the park perimeter, we see few children at play. Parents have apparently determined it’s no longer safe.
Recent water tests taken at the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers reported a highly elevated level of E. coli bacteria in the water, just downstream from numerous homeless encampments.
Does anyone believe Sacramento’s homeless policies are working?
Meantime, the death toll of homeless people in Sacramento is horrifying. For the past 16 years the good folks at the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness have prepared a gruesome annual report called the “Homeless Deaths Report.”
Ten years ago, the annual death toll hovered around 40 to 50 people per year. Three years ago, annual deaths rose to 71. Two years ago, it spiked to 124 deaths. Last year, it was 132.
While the public perception is that Sacramento’s biggest drug problem is heroin addiction, the truth is that meth was involved in 88 percent of all alcohol- and drug-related homeless deaths last year. A Sacramento County deputy district attorney told me Sacramento is now considered the meth capital of California.
With passage of Proposition 47 in 2014, hard drugs such as meth, heroin and cocaine have been effectively decriminalized in California. Before Proposition 47, possession of hard drugs could be prosecuted as a felony. Now it’s a misdemeanor. I’m told Sacramento Police rarely bother to arrest or cite people for possession of hard drugs, knowing the person will almost certainly be out in a matter of hours.
With county jails overcrowded, a consequence of Gov. Jerry Brown’s prison-to-jail “realignment” reforms, there is often no room at the county lock-up for people convicted of misdemeanors, including quality-of-life crimes such as public urination and defecation, trespass, vandalism, petty theft (now defined as the theft of an item with a value under $950) and violations of city and county anti-camping ordinances.
The downgrade of meth and heroin possession from felony to misdemeanor has undermined the effectiveness of Sacramento’s drug court. In drug court (and its sister court for mental health), a defendant facing a felony drug charge can, by accepting treatment, counseling, frequent random drug tests and weekly check-ins, earn dismissal of his felony once he’s completed the program.
Sacramento’s drug court has an admirable track record of reducing recidivism among its “graduates” by 30 percent, compared to those defendants who don’t participate in drug court. A 30-percent drop in recidivism is considered a major success in the world of rehab and criminal recidivism.
Why would someone cited or arrested today for a misdemeanor heroin or meth possession charge bother with drug court? He faces no serious jail time and likely has little concern over having a misdemeanor (versus a felony) conviction on his record. Consequently, drug addicts today miss the best opportunity they have to get clean and reclaim their lives.
What can be done to restore the effectiveness of drug courts in Sacramento, short of statewide voter repeal of Proposition 47? Well, city and county elected officials could amend municipal codes to make possession of hard drugs punishable by a full year in the county jail. The district attorney and judges could adopt a tough love policy of sentencing hard drug offenders to one year in county jail if they refuse the opportunity to enroll in drug court.
Would such a policy aggravate current problems with jail overcrowding? Possibly, but only if an appreciable percentage of drug defendants refused to enroll in drug court.
Offenders who refuse drug court would spend a year in jail clean of hard drugs. Meanwhile, they wouldn’t commit the thefts, burglaries, robberies and other crimes so many drug addicts commit to pay for their habits.
Whether they’re engaged in drug court-supervised treatment or cleaning up for a year in county jail, such folks won’t be dying on the streets of Sacramento.
HAVEN FOR HOPE AT CITY COUNCIL
At a recent Sacramento City Council meeting, the council heard presentations from more than a dozen members of a new group called “Haven for Hope California.” The presenters encouraged councilmembers to join a taskforce to examine the feasibility of building a comprehensive homeless treatment facility in Sacramento modeled after the acclaimed Haven for Hope in San Antonio.
The group invited councilmembers to travel to Texas to tour the facility. Mayor Darrell Steinberg agreed to make the trip, and several councilmembers agreed to serve on the taskforce.
A unique aspect of Haven for Hope is its dual-function campus. It includes a large-capacity, low-barrier safe refuge which provides for basic needs, coupled with a “transformational campus” which delivers an array of coordinated services in a residential setting. It offers individuals (and the community) immediate relief from street homelessness.
If you would like to be part of the effort to bring a Haven for Hope-type facility to Sacramento, please drop me a line. The group could use help and support from folks of all backgrounds, experiences and viewpoints.
Craig Powell is a retired attorney, businessman, community activist and president of Eye On Sacramento, a civic watchdog and policy group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (916) 718-3030. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram: @insidesacramento.