Exporting indigence

Social worker calls recent homeless-dumping the ‘tip of the iceberg’

Loaves & Fishes’ Tim Brown says other counties are relocating their homeless to Sacramento on a regular basis.

Loaves & Fishes’ Tim Brown says other counties are relocating their homeless to Sacramento on a regular basis.

Photo By Larry Dalton

A homeless man transported by Placer County officials to a Sacramento County nonprofit on December 30 is just “the tip of the iceberg” of homeless-dumping, claims a former Placer County worker who quit last week out of frustration with the lack of services for homeless people in Placer County.

Larry DeMates, who has been employed by the Adult Children Community Emergency Services System (ACCESS), the system for dealing with social services for Placer County, left his social-work job of six years out of disgust with the way the county deals with adults looking for emergency shelter. Placer County has no shelter for the homeless, although several nonprofits, including the Salvation Army, do distribute motel and rental vouchers. DeMates claims that when people call ACCESS looking for emergency shelter, “workers are told to ‘get [homeless] people out of’” the county. Another social worker, who asked not to be named, corroborated those claims. Both are members of an employee union involved in litigation with Placer County regarding alleged unfair labor practices.

Placer County officials have stated publicly that the transport of a deaf and mute homeless man, identified in the Auburn Journal as Keith Johnson, to Sacramento’s Loaves & Fishes was an “error” and not “standard practice,” but DeMates and others who deal with homeless people in Placer County dispute that characterization.

“It’s commonplace,” said Mark Bledsoe, a housing-resource specialist with Placer Independent Resource Services, an advocacy group for the disabled. He added that the lack of resources for homeless folks often leaves advocates with no choice but to refer folks out of town.

Tim Brown, the executive director of Loaves & Fishes, a private Sacramento nonprofit providing meals and services to homeless people, said the delivery of Johnson to his offices was a blatant example of homeless-dumping but was not the only such incident Loaves & Fishes staff have witnessed.

About “every month or so, it seems,” people are “driven down” and “dumped in our county, based on usually fairly flimsy evidence that they have any connection” to Sacramento, Brown said. “Basically,” he added, other counties “are trying to avoid providing services, or there is a lack of services.”

On December 30, a Placer County car driven by a Placer County employee “pulled up right in front of our administrative offices,” said Brown, with a deaf and mute African-American man in the back seat. Brown said the employee explained he was from Placer County and said he was told to bring the disabled man to Loaves & Fishes. Brown explained that Loaves & Fishes does not provide shelter and added that he would call the employee’s boss and “raise hell about this.” Brown said the employee then made a call on his cell phone and unloaded the man and his possessions onto the sidewalk. The man, who had a protruding eye and fused fingers, had “multiple disabilities,” said Brown. He added that the employee “put him out of the car and drove off.” Brown said he later contacted Ray Merz, Placer County’s director of Health and Human Services Department, who “took my call and, to his credit, said, ‘This doesn’t sound like something we’re supposed to do,’ and promised to look into” the incident. Placer County officials finally did send a car back to Sacramento to retrieve Johnson. Brown said he first had to drive around Sacramento to find Johnson, who had thrown papers on the ground indicating that he had been discharged from a Placer County treatment facility. Brown said the papers, signed by a Dr. Smith, indicated that Johnson was not mentally ill and listed Johnson’s address as the Loaves & Fishes office in Sacramento.

“This guy would [write], ‘Christ is coming!’ when we asked him if he wanted water, so it seemed like he might have some mental-health issues,” said Brown. That aside, “this guy should have qualified for disability or been put under a conservatorship because, clearly, he couldn’t survive.”

Connie Frank, co-director of the Loaves & Fishes Maryhouse, a day shelter for women and families, said she has seen other examples of homeless people arriving in Sacramento at the direction of social workers in other counties. One example that she recalled in particular took place two or three years ago, when a woman from Placer County who was supposed to be under a conservatorship arrived at Maryhouse because there was no place for her in Placer County. “I spent the entire day dealing with a very disabled, mentally ill woman,” recalled Frank. “No way could she have sought shelter on her own.” Ultimately, Frank said the woman was put up overnight in a Sacramento County mental-health facility until Placer County officials could come and retrieve her.

But other advocates for the homeless say they have not noticed an influx of Placer County residents in Sacramento County.

“That doesn’t mean that people normally residing in Placer County don’t make their [own] way into Sacramento County,” said Leo McFarland, president of Volunteers of America, which operates a 133-bed winter shelter at Cal Expo. “There haven’t really been indications of county dumping at our facility.”

McFarland and other social- service workers believe Placer County’s recent hike in housing prices may be delivering a two-strike blow to the area’s poor. Home prices have jumped by as much as 40 percent in the past few years, said Michelle Talbott, social-services director for the Salvation Army in Auburn. She said her office spent $30,000 on rent and shelter vouchers for people in 2003, compared with $17,000 in 2002. At the same time, the county’s growing social cachet may be contributing to political pressure to block attempts to build low-cost housing in the county.

“Placer County, from a political standpoint, is just developing some wealth from growth in the area,” said McFarland. “It’s in its infancy for dealing with social issues and having the resources available to have a shelter. I hope that will be changing in the future.”