In from the cold

Sacramento city and county officials struggle to provide enough beds for the homeless

As head of Safe Ground, John Kraintz helps ensure homeless people in Sacramento have a safe place to stay.

As head of Safe Ground, John Kraintz helps ensure homeless people in Sacramento have a safe place to stay.

Photo By Kyle Monk

John Kraintz is coming in from the cold this winter—a first for the former construction worker who lost his job and housing seven years ago and has been living on the streets ever since.

What got the 55-year-old Kraintz, who camps in a variety of places, including along the Sacramento River, to agree to come in this year?

It is part of a larger agreement between the city of Sacramento and Safe Ground, a group Kraintz heads that advocates for safe conditions for the homeless. In existence for two years now, the group has had as many as 250 members, Kraintz said, but now sits at about 30. All have signed agreements among each other that they will not use drugs or alcohol or participate in violent activities.

The agreement with Safe Ground, announced earlier this month, is part of a larger effort to revamp Sacramento Steps Forward, the city and county’s homeless initiative and make new winter overflow shelter beds available throughout the county.

In 2008, the city and county spent $1.7 million to keep Cal Expo’s 206 beds open November through March, nighttime hours only. Thirty-two beds were also available for women at the Salvation Army shelter, and another 20 through the N. Fifth Street shelter at Volunteers of America. However, in September, the county announced that there would be no funding for winter shelter beds at Cal Expo.

There are 599 permanent shelter beds in Sacramento County. Sacramento city and county leaders agree that additional winter shelter beds have to be found. So far, more than 400 beds have been provided through a variety of funding machinations, including federal stimulus money for homelessness prevention and rapid rehousing funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. New beds have also been freed up by moving people out of shelters into permanent supportive housing.

St. John’s Shelter at Mather Air Force Base is providing 105 of the 400 new beds. “Rapid rehousing” beds located throughout the county account for another 100 beds. Readiness Transitional Housing has 52 beds spread out between the VOA and Salvation Army. The beds will be open November through March, and operate 24-seven.

“If you’re going to try to maximize trying to help people get their lives back on track and move them to a more stable environment, it only makes sense to allow them to stay at a place that’s open for more hours,” said Cassandra Jennings, assistant city manager for Sacramento.

The city is paying $149,000 for the beds; the county is kicking in $168,000. Federal funding, which includes Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, as well as HUD moneys and one-time stimulus moneys, will pick up the rest of the cost, Jennings said.

Kraintz is grateful to the city and county, but still believes the need will outstrip the effort.

“There are people out here who are really, really, vulnerable,” Kraintz said, “much more so than I. … Women and children. I know I can survive a winter out here, although it would be hard. It would be harder on others.”

On the larger front, Sacramento Steps Forward is a repackaging of the city and county’s 10-year-plan to end chronic homelessness, adopted nearly three years ago. It replaces that plan with a more aggressive policy initiative, increasing the number of permanent supportive housing units from 2,400 in the next three years. Formerly, the plan called for creating 1,500 units in five years.

City Councilman Rob Fong, who sits on the new Policy Board to End Homelessness, explained that the new initiative is “more than just window dressing,” and said that Sacramento residents can expect to see tangible results.

“I think it’s because it’s a renewed commitment to being held accountable,” said Fong. “I think the mayor and the policy board are being held to a more ambitious timeline, a certain number per year and that will be very tangible, very measurable. It’s a very complex problem, and obviously rapid rehousing and permanent housing are immediate goals, but we need every segment of the community involved for it to work.”

To that end, Fong has taken the lead on his own Faith & Homeless Families Initiative, launched earlier this year, working with downtown churches to adopt homeless women and their children.

Eight churches are currently onboard and serving 10 families, including First United Methodist, Westminster Presbyterian, Bayside Church, Spiritual Life Center and St. John’s Lutheran. Fong said 30 additional churches have indicated an interest in joining the effort. A similar program is underway in Denver, where Fong got the idea, and is housing 400 families, Fong said.

“One of the concerns I had,” Fong said, “was that the federal definition of ‘chronic homelessness’ doesn’t cover women and children, so the 10-year plan never covered that. So that’s why I started Faith & Families.

“There’s low-hanging fruit we should just be going after; for example, women, children and families,” Fong continued. “They have some income, but they need a hand. I think they will be an easier part of the population to stabilize because they don’t have a lot of other issues. It would be great to keep these kids enrolled in the same school for the year, so my program tackles that.”

The Faith & Families Homeless Initiative, while directed by the city council, will be part of Sacramento Steps Forward’s larger effort to end homelessness, Fong said.

The overall housing goals, overseen by the policy board, include 1,000 units that will be created during the next three years for people who are at risk of becoming homeless without assistance and 1,400 units of supportive housing for the general homeless, many of whom fall into the “chronic” or hard-to-reach population.

Thus far, the effort to end chronic homelessness in the past two years has yielded roughly 400 new permanent housing units—considerably less than the previous initiative’s stated goals. But officials say with new federal funding for homelessness prevention, along with renewed strategies for moving formerly homeless residents from shelters to transitional housing, the program’s more aggressive housing goals will be realized.

Still, gaps are to be expected, and there remains the issue of illegal camping, which Kraintz and his friends worry will only get worse, not better, during the winter months.

“They’re still telling people to ‘move along’ when they find them by the river,” Kraintz said. “I just worry that without enough beds, there’s going to be problems.”

“Obviously, we’re not the lead on this, but the increased beds will only help us,” said Sgt. Norm Leong of the Sacramento Police Department. “We don’t believe that arresting someone is the solution to homelessness, so when there’s a place for them to go, it’s great. But it’s still illegal to camp within the city of Sacramento and we will enforce those laws.”

While additional winter shelter beds are available now, 211 Sacramento—the number people can call to access winter shelter options—is lagging behind in its ability to currently reserve bed space, officials said.

As it is supposed to work, someone dials 211 and, after answering several questions about their specific situation, a referral specialist will search the county for a shelter bed or motel voucher and then reserve it for that person, as well as mark that bed as taken in the system.

“We were hoping to get this going November 1, then by the end of November,” said Katrina Middleton, director of 211 Sacramento. “Unfortunately, it’s taken longer than we had hoped.

“We’re still hoping by mid-December, but no one’s guaranteeing the reservation system will be up and running by that time,” Middleton continued. “We will certainly still refer people to shelters, but we just can’t verify there’s a bed for them until the reservation system is in place. I know that’s not a satisfying answer, but it’s the best we can do right now.”