Debunking seven more myths about Sacramento’s latest homelessness debate

Bad choices, laziness and a lack of solutions: Laying to rest some of society’s cruel assumptions about Sacramento’s most vulnerable

Myths about homeless people are as plentiful as Kanye West Twitter tirades. As the Right to Rest occupation of City Hall cruises toward its third month, SN&R decided to examine seven more false assumptions about homelessness in general, and about the city of Sacramento’s role in particular. Let’s get started:

Homeless people don’t want to work.

About 18 months ago, Billy was struggling to catch a break. A long period of fruitless job-hunting forced him onto the streets of his hometown, Citrus Heights, where he continued to pound the pavement. At daybreak every morning, he’d stuff his sleeping bag into the bushes and march a mile or so to the nearest Home Depot to compete with the other sleep-smeared and anxious faces in the day-labor lottery. “If I get nothing, as has been the case for the past few weeks, then I panhandle instead to keep myself afloat,” he said then.

His story is more common than people might give him credit for, say homeless advocates.

According to a Sacramento Steps Forward report from October 2010 that surveyed nearly 200 homeless people who attended a resources fair, unemployment is as common as the desire to work, equal to 88 percent of respondents. More than a third also cited unemployment as the reason they became homeless.

Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, co-authored the survey. Nationally, he says that anywhere from 25 percent to 40 percent of homeless people work in some capacity. The laziness rap is completely unearned, in other words.

Billy, who asked that his full name not be used, panhandled when he couldn’t snag a day-labor gig. Then, one day, while he was holding a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk, he says, a Citrus Heights cop rolled up and ticketed him for violating the city’s anti-panhandling ordinance—a misdemeanor—versions of which have been adopted throughout Sacramento County.

Billy went to court and got the charge dismissed, but the sting lingered. “It is downright inhumane to tell me that I can’t ask for assistance,” he said. “I most certainly do not have a house I go back to and roll around in big piles of money.”

They made poor choices.

This was probably the most common misconception that nearly a dozen homeless service providers raised when asked. “They made bad choices. That’s another myth,” says Paula Lomazzi of the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee, or SHOC. “I think these ’bad choices’ in a [better] economy would not have ended with homelessness.”

Blaming the victim is also common when it comes to young people.

“The other misperception around runaway and homeless youth is that they ’chose’ to runaway and be homeless,” says California Coalition for Youth Executive Director Paul Curtis. “The vast majority of youth who are homeless are thrown out, kicked out, abandoned or have to leave an abusive home environment.”

Tubman House and Waking the Village Executive Director Bridget Alexander witnesses those stories up close. “As someone who works with youth and young adults, the misconception I hear endlessly is that youth facing homelessness have made some mistake,” she writes in an email. “Most folks make an assumption of drug addiction.”

While Alexander hasn’t noticed greater rates of substance use in homeless youth compared with the general population, she’s seen a different trend. More than 80 percent of her clients, she says, have experienced some kind of trauma, typically in the form of sexual or domestic violence. Foster care or losing loved ones is common. Poverty and social injustice are universal.

“When I listen to these stories, I am always left wondering how they are coping so well and still holding onto such hope,” she writes. “I never, ever think that a kid screwed up. Given the same conditions, I cannot imagine anyone doing better.”

The economy has rebounded.

At his last State of the City speech last month, Mayor Kevin Johnson showed the Crest Theatre his three of a kind.

Moving their headquarters to the city would be Anpac Bio-Medical, a company that performs cancer screenings, and the cloud-based tech firm Flipbox. The city was also entering into a partnership with 500 Startups, a venture capital business incubator.

The message was clear: This government town is finally diversifying its employment base. And just in time.

“The rent is rising here dramatically. Still, the people at the bottom haven’t recovered. It hasn’t trickled down,” says Lomazzi, who used to be homeless herself. She laughs. “That’s another myth.”

Despite a regional recovery that has pushed unemployment down to pre-recession levels, the jobs that came back aren’t as good as those that vanished, according to a recent study by the Sacramento Business Review. “This is not news,” SBR flatly states in its 2016 economic outlook report. The shift to a job market propped up by unskilled and lower-wage positions has been creeping along for years. Meanwhile, rents have spiked irrespective of this data, up more than 3 percent in the city over the past year, and averaging $1,140 a month, according to Apartment List Rentonomics.

“Nobody should work 40 hours a week and not be able to pay their rent. But that happens every day in Sacramento,” says Wind Youth Services’ Niki Jones.

The two passing ships—the spread of lower-paying jobs and the rise in rents—underpins the current push for a livable minimum wage, which will be tested at the ballot later this year.

Enforcing the anti-camping ban is a path to services.

It’s unclear whether city officials actually believe this when they say it. But several providers say it’s an indictment of the system that helping homeless people starts with handcuffs. “It’s strange to make that jump, that the only route to services is criminalization,” Jones says.

The city has invested in a dozen navigator positions, people who are tasked with going out into the city and essentially case-work the individuals experiencing homelessness. Jones says it’s a worthy addition to the continuum of care, but downplays its successes. The navigators, she says, “are funneling people” into programs like hers that already have waiting lists.

There are 1,900 people in the community queue, Jones said, “all theoretically connected to services, yet most are sleeping outside. Getting connected to services does not mean housing.”

The city has responded in a way: It recently stopped funding the navigator assigned to Wind.

There are no solutions.

Erlenbusch hears this sentiment expressed in several ways: Ending homelessness is too expensive or too difficult. There have always been homeless people and there always will be.

He has rebuttals for them all.

“[T]he reality is that we can end homelessness and prevent it with housing[,] but lack the political will to create affordable housing and living wage jobs,” he writes in an email. “[I]magine if our community had decided to put $250 + million into creation of affordable housing rather than an arena.”

Zing. (Hey, it wouldn’t be an SN&R piece without a potshot at the arena subsidy.) Moving on, Erlenbusch, Jones and others say the current era of “mass homelessness” can be traced back to policy shifts that began in the 1960s and bloomed under former President Ronald Reagan, particularly the divestment of federal aid from public housing.

“It it the root cause of the situation we have now,” Jones says. “We stopped housing people. We stopped housing working people.”

In the past few years, a scattering of municipalities have picked up on this and individually begun pursuing “housing first” initiatives that stabilize people in homes, then tackle whatever issues they’re juggling.

It’s been effective in other locales, and the city has embraced the philosophy on its website. But to what degree? While mayoral front-runner Darrell Steinberg has proposed a statewide initiative to house homeless people, there are big questions about whether it will become a reality and whether the funding—taken from his mental health legislation—would be restricted to serving those with mental illnesses.

The city has dropped $500,000 into a countywide rapid rehousing partnership that’s aimed at creating more than 300 new households, while a downtown housing initiative that will add some 13,000 units over the next 10 years has carved out 15 percent for unsheltered individuals.

But skeptics don’t believe those efforts are enough to diversify the housing stock as the arena domino-effect raises prices. California Homeless Youth Project Director Shahera Hyatt refers to that as “poverty destabilization,” or what happens when gentrification proceeds unchecked. “I think where we struggle is addressing it on a deeper level,” she says. “Gentrification doesn’t necessarily have to displace all low-income communities.”

She says it can be offset by integrating the housing stock and subsidizing very low-income households. “Unfortunately our city and county aren’t really doing that.”

Police are the enemy.

Cops are the messengers of the city’s policies, not its architects. Yes, the “just following orders” explanation is unsatisfying for those who feel like their mere existence draws police scrutiny. Ask Luke “Que” McCrae, who was singled out for arrest on Saturday while protesting the city’s camping ban.

The 35-year-old African-American man has been previously cited for violating the city’s anti-camping ordinance, and was one of a few individuals who refused police’s commands to move his belongings from the sidewalk outside of City Hall on February 20. But he’s the one they arrested, and it’s lead to some exaggerated claims on both sides.

McCrae was booked on four felony counts of battery on a peace officer, according to online jail logs. Video of his arrest doesn’t show much battery going on. What it does show is a frustrated McCrae resisting four officers’ attempts to pull him down to the ground. It’s a slow-motion tackle, followed by a slow-motion struggle into the paddy wagon. Throughout, McCrae keeps saying, “Put a bullet in my head.”

The Sacramento Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild is looking into why McCrae was arrested when other protesters were not. The Guild and others have also repeated allegations that police “brutalized” McCrae and placed him in a chokehold similar to the one that killed Eric Garner.

But video of the incident doesn’t support the brutality claims any more than it does the battery ones. And the hyperbolic discourse threatens to overshadow valid concerns about how the city’s policy is enforced and who it targets.

Opponents of the camping ban only do the city council a huge favor by forgetting who holds the leash.

City officials won’t reverse course.

In March of last year, the city dispatched police officers to scatter or ticket artists who violated curfew by conducting an impromptu spoken-word performance in Cesar Chavez Plaza. The optics were terrible for Sacramento. We’re talking Footloose-level terrible.

Thankfully, the city came to its senses and backed off. Eleven months later, the two sides are actually considering a possible collaboration. Andru Defeye, of Sol Collective and ZFG Promotions fame and one of the architects of last year’s open-mic rebellion, says he and Councilman Larry Carr are in early talks about steering some arts funding toward a pop-up stage that ZFG envisions.

It’s not for sure, but Defeye described the 180-degree surreality on his Facebook wall: “Almost a year ago they threatened to arrest us for poetry in public places. Today I go meet with a city council member to talk about them funding us. #‎ZeroForbiddenGoals”

There’s a lesson there somewhere.