Fragmented continuum: Political rift leads Sacramento city, county leaders to develop competing homeless strategies

Advocate calls county plan a ‘house of cards’ that could endanger federal aid

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the March 23, 2017, issue.

On solving Sacramento’s homelessness crisis, county and city leaders are increasingly going in different directions.

County officials escalated a simmering dispute with their city counterparts on Tuesday by advancing a set of initiatives intended to prop up and expand help for hundreds of individuals and families experiencing homelessness. But the approximately $11 million plan has left homeless advocates scratching their heads.

While the money is for goals they generally support, they’re part of a go-it-alone strategy that could scatter increasingly scarce federal resources from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which faces massive cuts from President Donald Trump.

Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, called the county proposal “riddled with issues” and “a house of cards.”

Rather than team up on one comprehensive strategy that maximizes available resources, Erlenbusch said, the county was creating a separate prong that would ultimately dilute impact.

“With $7.5 billion in cuts to HUD being proposed, now is the time for the city and county to work together at the same table and not show gaping cracks in whatever ‘partnership’ exists,” he told the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

Supervisors adopted the initiatives following a March 21 presentation from staff.

Among other things, the county plan calls for a redesigned family shelter system, replacement funding to keep the endangered Mather Community Campus operational and two new initiatives—one that could erect year-round dormitory-style living quarters to temporarily house up to 75 homeless people a year on county property. But that last idea may also result in the county withdrawing financial support from a winter sanctuary program it says serves the same population, approximately 40 people each winter night.

But that’s not even the most controversial proposal.

As part of the plan, the county is looking to redirect $1.2 million of the general fund money it currently has invested in programs run by Sacramento Steps Forward toward a pair of new initiatives it would have total control over, including “rehousing” dormitories, which would provide low-barrier access and case management services to people with partners, pets and possessions.

The redirected funds would mostly sap Steps Forward’s own rapid rehousing program, and hints at the behind-the-scenes political turmoil that has embroiled the area’s lead agency for ending homelessness.

Launched by the city in 2009, Steps Forward took over sole responsibility for managing federal homelessness resources from the county, but not without bumps in the process. Because federal HUD aid often rolls in slowly, Steps Forward initially couldn’t pay its vendors on time for services rendered, creating huge problems for small community-providers that run on thin margins. Eventually, the county agreed to act as a zero-interest line of credit, with Steps Forward reimbursing these loans when the federal money came in.

But the real conflict emerged last year, when Steps Forward left the Mather Community Campus off its annual funding application to HUD, creating a $2.5 million shortfall for the transitional housing program. The reason was that HUD had made funding permanent housing programs a bigger priority, and Steps Forward didn’t want to risk losing out on money. That strategy paid off, as HUD awarded 100 percent of Steps Forward’s Mather-free funding request last year, $19.3 million in all.

But the Mather program, which provided temporary housing and employment services at its campus to approximately 330 people last year and requires sobriety as a condition to stay, remains a priority for the county. So much so the county is considering an increased financial stake in the program of between $500,000 and $700,000 this year.

The total price tag for the county initiatives ranges between $7.5 million and $8.4 million this fiscal year, and between $10.2 million and $11.4 million in future years, according to a 21-page agenda report. But that depends on the county shoring up other support, including a desired $2.4 million from Sutter Health, which has already committed to banking a more comprehensive strategy from the Sacramento City Council.

Supervisors have reacted coolly to that plan, which calls upon them to earmark 1,200 of their housing-assistance vouchers for homeless individuals, who were previously ineligible to receive them.

Creating a housing voucher preference for the homeless remains a priority for advocacy groups like Sacramento Area Congregations Together. “This is the only viable option to quickly house substantial numbers of currently homeless people in real housing,” Sacramento ACT member Mike Jaske wrote in an email submitted as public comment to supervisors.

The county’s director of homeless initiatives, Cynthia Cavanaugh, didn’t respond to SN&R’s questions prior to deadline. The city’s homeless services coordinator, Emily Halcon, declined to comment except to say that she had read the county’s report and planned to listen to Tuesday’s discussion. Mayor Darrell Steinberg couldn’t be reached.

Reached by phone, Councilman Steve Hansen said he wanted to encourage the county to “continue to add resources to the continuum of care” operated by Steps Forward. And if the county wanted to also build up its own homelessness resources, “Let’s have a community conversation as to how to get to there,” Hansen added.

Erlenbusch put it more bluntly.

“Why should any of these funders support this plan when it is clear the county has no intention on collaborating with the city or [Steps Forward’s continuum of care]?” Erlenbusch told supervisors. He also called it “shameful that we are recreating county silos rather than city and county solutions.”