Oprah’s Curse

A decade later, city seeks answers for homeless

By R.E. Graswich
September 2019

It all started with Oprah. In February 2009, the TV talk show icon sent reporter Lisa Ling to a homeless camp called “tent city” near the American River and Sutter’s Landing.

Ling and her crew found several dozen people living rough, struggling for survival in the Great Recession. With images reminiscent of the 1930s, the presentation on Oprah’s show was heartbreaking.

The broadcast humiliated Sacramento. And it inspired philosophical upheavals that continue today at City Hall. Oprah pushed Sacramento to reverse its approach and treat homelessness as something that can be defeated, if only wise leaders plow enough money into the right places.

A decade later, Mayor Darrell Steinberg has become a prisoner to the movement inspired by tent city. He scrambles to find solutions to homelessness, but the city’s booming unsheltered population demonstrates the quicksand nature of his task.

Steinberg has come up with a novel strategy. He wants to provide a shelter bed for every homeless person in Sacramento—5,570 at last count, well above Oakland’s record-busting number of 4,071.

When it comes to homelessness, we are world class.

But Steinberg added a brilliant twist. Under his shelter-for-all plan, sleeping outside won’t be tolerated. When beds are available, homeless people will not be allowed to camp under the stars or sleep in doorways.

While the mayor’s plan is courageous, he hasn’t explained how to enforce or pay for it. There will be opposition—many homeless people believe it’s their right to camp wherever they please. Steinberg will have to fight.

For generations, Sacramento was immune to the sights, sounds and smells of derelicts passed out along Front or Second streets. When Interstate 5 was built and the West End rebranded as Old Sacramento, candy shops replaced skid-row saloons. The rummies moved up J and K streets. Some dug in along the American River. As long as they didn’t bother anyone, bums were left alone.

 

Oprah shattered the narrative. Her video suggested our tent city was populated not with alcoholics, schizophrenics and junkies, but with honest, hardworking people crushed by economic turbulence and evictions.

While homeless families and children sadly do exist, their presence was greatly exaggerated by Oprah and Ling. There were about 2,800 homeless people in Sacramento in 2009, a number that declined by 200 or 300 over the next six years as the economy improved and jobs returned. The folks who stayed homeless were spiritual descendants of West End bums.

Today, the mantra is “housing first,” which prioritizes giving homeless people a roof before foundational factors such as alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness are addressed. California law mandates “housing first.”

Steinberg knows all this. He’s an expert in homelessness. Much of his career has been devoted to allocating money for mental illness, addiction and vagrancy. If he can deliver on his plan to shelter every homeless person and eliminate camping, he will have succeeded where his predecessors fell short.

Like Steinberg, other mayors tried: Joe Serna and Heather Fargo created homeless programs with local service providers. Kevin Johnson invented Sacramento Steps Forward, a public-private partnership that housed 1,675 people in one year. Before the recession, Sacramento County spent $29 million annually on homeless programs. In 2011, the homeless count fell to 2,358.

When Oprah’s crew arrived, the recession was blamed for Sacramento’s homeless crisis. Today, it’s the opposite—unfair economic prosperity and gentrification are blamed.

The true major causes are addiction and mental illness. They are not conjured by economics. Even West End rummies knew that. Good luck, Mayor Steinberg.

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

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