New federal homelessness policies could mean less funds for Sacramento

Obama administration ties decriminalizing the homeless to federal grants

Regina Felker sleeps on North B Street. Advocates say enforcement of Sacramento’s anti-camping ordinance could cost federal dollars.

Regina Felker sleeps on North B Street. Advocates say enforcement of Sacramento’s anti-camping ordinance could cost federal dollars.


In the original version of this story, it was reported that data from Sacramento Metro Fire District Chief Mark A. Wells contradicted Sacramento County’s assertion that homeless campers on the American River Parkway posed a fire hazard. While it is true that parkway fires declined for the third straight year in SMF’s jurisdiction, that specific area only encompasses parkway between Howe and Hazel avenues, not the entire parkway.

As the U.S. government sets a new policy course on protecting the rights of homeless Americans, some longtime homelessness activists believe Sacramento is in danger of falling behind and losing federal dollars.

In August, the departments of Justice and Housing and Urban Development made separate announcements that rippled down to the local level.

First, the DOJ opined that arresting people for sleeping or camping outdoors can be cruel and unusual, and a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Then, HUD stated it would look unfavorably on communities that don’t specifically address the criminalization of their homeless residents when it comes to awarding highly competitive grant money.

Buoyed by the news, local homeless activists—who’ve worked for years to overturn the city of Sacramento’s anti-camping ordinance—expressed cautious optimism that their mission was finally reaching a national tipping point. In short, they say, communities that don’t get on board with Washington, D.C.’s polished homeless stance could start risking lawsuits and federal dollars.

“The two decisions are very significant,” said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness.

But so far, Sacramento city and county officials have largely shrugged off calls to amend their policies, and instead continue to enforce public camping prohibitions, tear down homeless camps and issue fines and citations.

Last month, the county board of supervisors expanded restrictions on homeless activities, by adding a third illegal-camping unit to patrol the American River Parkway and approving an emergency ordinance that makes it a misdemeanor to grill food in most areas of the parkway. Supervisors argued the anti-cooking measure was necessary due to the fire hazard posed by homeless campers cooking outdoors.

Contradicting that assertion was the county’s own fire chief. In response to a request from the board, Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District Chief Mark A. Wells wrote in a letter that parkway fires had actually declined for the third year straight, and wrote that “[t]here is no evidence … to suggest a correlation between illegal encampments and fire incidents.”

According to Erlenbusch’s coalition, county park rangers spent 869 hours writing 1,344 citations for illegal camping between 2014 and 2015. Yet during all those interactions, they referred only two of the cited people to the county’s Department of Human Assistance.

The county did add a “homeless navigator” position last month to help address that. But a spokesman for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, which enforces county ordinances against panhandling, loitering and public camping, confirmed it was mostly business as usual.

“There are no changes that I am aware of,” Deputy Tony Turnbull said of the department’s approach to public camping. “Our job is to enforce the law, and until the courts say differently, [the anti-camping ordinance] is the law.”

Most of the pressure from local advocates has been applied at the city level, where the city council has heard multiple pleas—and at least one legal threat—to repeal restrictions against camping and feeding the homeless.

That pressure doesn’t appear to be stopping any time soon. The Community Dinner Project, whose members feed homeless residents in violation of city code, says it plans to occupy City Hall on December 8, when it will demand a halt to the camping ban.

Councilman Jeff Harris told SN&R that he doesn’t believe the solution lies in getting rid of these policies. Instead, he argues for creating a sustainable system of transitional and permanent housing, to be funded through collaboratives like Sacramento Steps Forward.

“The goal is to get them off the streets, out of makeshift campgrounds, and into some kind of permanent housing,” said Harris, whose District 3 includes the area occupied by Sacramento Loaves & Fishes. “We’re not talking a block of homes where they’re all homeless. We’re talking about re-integrating them into society.”

But that hasn’t happened, either. Both the city and county have weakened policies aimed at creating and integrating the very low-cost homes Harris is referring to. And the money that Steps Forward funnels to homeless-service providers comes directly from HUD, which will soon take local policies into consideration.

HUD evaluates grant requests using a point system, and awards numeric value according to an applicant’s ability to meet various standards and recommendations. In August, HUD created a new standard that docks applicants up to two points if their communities lack specific strategies to decriminalize homelessness beginning next year.

Erlenbusch says losing just a half-point is dangerous. He doubts Sacramento can reclaim all of the $18 million award it received recently from HUD—not without serious change, anyway.

Chris Jensen, director of Resources for Independent Living, reminded that federal money is a competition. “And even a couple of percentage points can mean a great deal.”

Not everyone agrees.

Emily Halcon is the homeless services coordinator for the city. She doesn’t think the impact of two points will be all that significant. But she does say HUD funding plays a vital role in addressing homelessness.

So does taxpayer money.

A new report from Erlenbusch’s coalition also scrutinized how the city applied public funds to deal with homelessness. Of the $13.6 million spent on homeless-related costs last year, more than 50 percent went to police and fire agencies, according to SRCEH. Only 11 percent was spent on actual housing.

“That doesn’t make much sense and these are the kinds of things that need to be brought to light and discussed,” Harris said of the report.

Erlenbusch seemed genuinely baffled that more was spent on policing and clean-up costs than it would take to expand emergency shelter operations. “It doesn’t make sense,” he laughed. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Harris agreed. “Eventually we’re going to realize it’s costing us more to respond to the lack of resources than it would have cost to just provide the resources to start with,” he said. “Ultimately, we have to provide help and create a triage center for assistance and resources. Otherwise, what’s the point? We’re just going in circles.”

Sacramento is hardly the only California community struggling to provide for a burgeoning homeless population. Homelessness in San Francisco has increased 4 percent over the past two years. Auburn, in Placer County, is facing a substantial homeless population for the first time in the small town’s recent history. In Los Angeles, a state of emergency was recently declared so that federal funds traditionally reserved for disaster relief could be used to provide for the rising number of homeless residents and the corresponding demand for resources.

Meanwhile, Yolo County has followed Salt Lake City’s proactive example and embarked on a housing-first experiment.

Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna, whose District 1 includes the American River Parkway, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Erlenbusch says that he and other activists are closely watching the city of Anaheim, which recently suspended its camping prohibition until it can determine what the DOJ statement means from a legal standpoint.

That’s one of the recommendations his group made in a 10-point plan it recently submitted to both the city council and county board of supervisors. Erlenbusch says he hasn’t yet received a response.

On October 13, the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness filed a civil-rights complaint with the DOJ that accused the city and county of Sacramento of violating the Eighth Amendment.

For Harris, the news of the SRCEH accusation is sobering, if not surprising.

“You know, if we took all the money we’ve spent on lawsuits and lawyers, and put it toward resources that were proactive …” he said, trailing off. “What we’ve done for the last 30 years didn’t work,” he continued. “Maybe it’s time we all got together, and tried something different.”