A tale of two daises: City lands $64 million to help with homelessness while county ponders destroying camps

Visibility, not data, drives dueling political agendas

Sacramento County park rangers destroy a homeless camp on Steelhead Creek.

Sacramento County park rangers destroy a homeless camp on Steelhead Creek.

Photo by scott thomas anderson

Hours after firefighters helped a crying woman who was clinging naked to a fountain in Cesar Chavez Plaza, the councilwoman who was on the scene and called for assistance, Angelique Ashby, voted on a $64 million initiative that could change the way Sacramento helps people on its streets.

For those looking on in Cesar Chavez Plaza on June 13, the apparent mental health crisis echoed one of the most visible elements of urban homelessness. Before the day was over, the incident was cited as an example of what City Hall was trying to address through the initiative. Before the week was over, the Board of Supervisors took up another highly visible aspect of homelessness—and earned far less praise from advocates in the process.

The City Council’s billion-dollar budget proposes more money for affordable housing and homeless outreach. But it was the city’s federal coup—landing a Whole Person Care grant that will yield an extra $16 million annually—that stirred genuine optimism last week.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg said the federal money can be used for putting mental health clinicians on fire trucks, inside jails and emergency rooms, and assisting with delicate police calls. The grant will also create a new system for steering homeless people who are getting mental health treatment into permanent housing.

Sacramento County officials opted not to apply for that very grant because it called for matching funds. At the moment, Steinberg has verbal agreements that the city’s half will be paid largely by the hospitals whose emergency rooms are burdened by current overflows.

A day after receiving the grant, council members moved ahead with weaving it into the mayor’s broader vision of getting 2,000 homeless individuals into permanent housing within three years. It will start too late for the disoriented woman Councilwoman Ashby saw climb the fountain before the meeting. Ashby says she quickly called 911 and stayed close until a lone firefighter waded through the monument’s water and convinced the woman to let him carry her down. “Our firefighters had four similar calls to that before 3 p.m. in downtown,” Ashby said. “If we had had this program, today, we could have had something more to help her than just an ER visit.”

According to local point-in-time counts, approximately 33 percent of homeless adults in Sacramento County experience serious mental illness, down 14 percent in six years. Chronic homelessness afflicted 28 percent.

Families and youth made up the largest proportion of the biennial homeless survey in 2015, but visibility and opportunity drive policy more than data.

The goal of alleviating emergency room congestion played a role in area hospitals putting up matching funds. Emily Halcon, the city’s homeless services coordinator, told SN&R that Dignity Health, Sutter Health and Sacramento Covered are expected to pay for about 80 percent of the city’s side of the grant obligation.

Whole Person Care was designed to be a county-led initiative. When supervisors walked away from the money, Steinberg went in for it, while also securing the hospitals as partners. However, Steinberg stressed during the announcement that the city’s ambitious plans will work only with serious cooperation from the county.

“I know there have been some strains,” Steinberg said of the relationship between the two governments. “And I acknowledge my part in that, right. I’ve been kind of aggressive about all of this.” The mayor added, “But we [the city] don’t have mental health and substance abuse services. … Working with the county to create one seamless system is not some luxury.”

The county Board of Supervisors met two days later to discuss homelessness issues, though its policy debate was about environmental damage and neighborhood blight from illegal camping. The county’s new budget allocates an additional $6.2 million in spending on shelter services. Given that investment, Supervisor Phil Serna said it was time to address the impacts of the hidden community through the parkway.

County officials and the federal Environmental Protection Agency have been receiving complaints about extensive creek and river pollution from the encampments, which SN&R documented in April. A series of isolated crime and accident reports are also fueling angry letters to the county.

On June 15, Serna suggested adding $3.8 million to the parks budget for ranger operations to destroy the camps.

Expressing support, Supervisor Don Notolli said the scope of blight from camping—both in the parkway and other pockets—had reached a turning point. “We’re running a risk,” Notolli said. “If we don’t get a handle on this, those types of activities are going to drive people out of our neighborhoods permanently.”

The supervisors ultimately delayed the vote until July.

Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, praised the supervisors’ investment in shelter services, but said destroying the camps would be counterproductive. New shelter space won’t balance out the region’s lack of low-income housing, Erlenbusch said. Not even close.

The advocate thinks a more productive way to handle the environmental challenges around the parkway is to follow the example of Orange County leaders, who regularly bring portable showers, mobile bathrooms and huge trash bins down into their greenbelt.

“What do they think is going to happen when they’re not investing in affordable housing and the people living down there don’t have trash bins or bathrooms?” Erlenbusch observed. “Providing those things would be a better strategy than continuing with this game of whack-a-mole. I think it’s the least they can do.”