Count down: Behind the little known food assistance program that exposed Sacramento’s homeless count lie

Calfresh restaurant program has 13,000 local homeless recipients

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the May 18, 2017, issue.
Bob Erlenbusch was in a meeting on hunger when a number drastically expanded the work ahead.

Erlenbusch is executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition for Homelessness. Among its projects, the coalition has published annual homeless mortality reports and started up a bureau of formerly homeless speakers to go around shredding the stereotypes that allow politicians to ignore their humanity.

One of the biggest misunderstandings about Sacramento County’s homeless population is that there are fewer than 2,700 of them on a given night. That’s according to a biennial point-in-time survey that was conducted during one evening in January 2015. Yes, that’s how communities count their homeless populations—by dispatching volunteers to tally people and families who are either escaping the winter rains or are hiding from what they believe to be police raids and Child Protective Services sweeps.

Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli participated in this year’s point-in-time count in January. (Figures aren’t yet available.) He says it’s a helpful snapshot, but notes its limitations. “You’re out in the dark and you try to find folks,” he said.

Erlenbusch is among the many activists who always knew the federally mandated counts underestimated the size of any community’s homeless population. But he never had proof. Then, a couple of weeks ago, a county official told his group that a unique food assistance program had exponentially more homeless people signed up for it than supposedly existed.

SN&R confirmed the numbers. As recently as March, 13,362 homeless people in Sacramento County were enrolled in a Calfresh program that allows them to use their monthly food benefits at participating restaurants.

Erlenbusch remembered being stunned by the figure. “It just underscores that we have a really significant homeless crisis in our county,” he said.

Initially, county officials sought to downplay the higher number as less representative of Sacramento’s homeless population than the much smaller point-in-time estimate.

Ann Edwards, director of the county’s Department of Human Assistance, said it was important to note that the Calfresh program also counted those who stayed in someone else’s residence for a period of 90 days or less. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which requires the point-in-time counts, doesn’t include that category in its definition of homelessness.

Shahera Hyatt, director of the state’s Homeless Youth Project, says HUD’s narrow definition has fallen out of favor. The Department of Education and federal runaway and homeless youth program both count those in temporary shelter.

“This high number may be a shock to politicians or systems who use the PIT count, but certainly isn’t for the advocates or service providers who work directly with the homeless community,” Hyatt wrote in an email.

Edwards said she thought most of the homeless participants in the Calfresh program were couch-surfing in the homes of friends or relatives, but didn’t have the figures to support that claim.

Some local politicians say it doesn’t matter.

Though he hadn’t heard the figure prior to being contacted by SN&R, Supervisor Nottoli said it reflected what political leaders like him are up against. “It speaks to the challenge that lies ahead for the county,” he said. “This points to the fragility of their economic circumstances, and that a lot of folks could be one or two paychecks away.”

Nottoli’s colleague, Supervisor Patrick Kennedy, agreed, saying the asterisk should be applied to the point-in-time figure, not the Calfresh one. “Personally I think the larger number is actually more reflective,” Kennedy said.

It may also be an undercount.

Speaking of the 13,000-plus figure, Erlenbusch remarked, “Those are just the homeless people who know about the Restaurant Meals Program” offered through Calfresh.

Implemented by its Department of Human Assistance in 2006, Sacramento is one of eight counties participating in the Calfresh program, along with Alameda, San Francisco, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, Los Angeles and San Diego. In a decade’s time, 40 restaurants have opted in—20 of which are either Taco Bells or Subway sandwich shops. The goal of the meeting Erlenbusch convened was to expand the program’s reach beyond fast food shops clustered in North Sacramento, where almost half of the establishments reside.

But at least the program exists. And the Department of Human Assistance is actively enrolling people in it, said Joan Burke, director of advocacy at Sacramento Loaves & Fishes.

“DHA should really get credit for doing this,” Burke said, adding that the department sends outreach workers to Loaves’ Friendship Park twice a week to sign people up for social services. That’s a far cry from the days when Loaves’ legal services arm threatened to sue the county for not informing eligible residents about the food assistance benefits for which they qualified. “They’ve done a good-faith effort,” Burke said.

Like other areas, Sacramento County suffers from low Calfresh enrollment rates that leave tens of millions of dollars of aid untapped by those who are eligible to receive it. And many homeless people receive Supplemental Security Income, which makes them ineligible for Calfresh assistance, Burke explained.

“It makes that figure even more sobering,” Burke said.

And it means that Sacramento is likely still just scratching the surface.