Point of shame: Sacramento’s unsheltered homeless population explodes by 110 percent

Mayor Darrell Steinberg: ‘This is a damning report’

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the July 13, 2017, issue.

Ryan Loofbourrow stepped behind the slender podium placed in front of the Quinn Cottages building on North A Street in downtown Sacramento, the heart of the homelessness crisis his agency is charged with ending. Several feet away, under an already warm sun, someone tried to get the applause going, banging thick palms together like rocks.

“Yeah, Ryan!” a woman called.

“Who applauds at a press conference?” a man in the audience wondered.

Loofbourrow, executive director of Sacramento Steps Forward, the agency that dispenses roughly $20 million in annual federal housing dollars, looked sheepishly into the morning glare. “Yeah, we’ll see if you’re all still clapping when we’re …” he said, the rest of the thought petering out.

There was no escaping the inevitable. Sacramento’s shame was about to be dragged into the spotlight of a searing summer sun.

According to a federally mandated point-in-time count, Sacramento County’s estimated homeless population, including those who have managed to find temporary refuge in shelters, rose by 38 percent in two years. Most alarmingly, the number of people without access to any indoor shelter exploded 110 percent—to 2,052 human beings attempting to survive the elements and avoid arrest for sleeping outside.

Loofbourrow told attendees of the Monday press conference that the grim findings provided “a sobering affirmation of what we see every day.”

In total, 3,665 people on January 25 met the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s rather narrow definition of homelessness, which doesn’t account for multiple families sharing a single apartment or a young person crashing on a friend’s couch. Still, even with those limitations and the caveats that these surveys are performed on a single winter night and that they systematically undercount both families and youths, the findings were disastrous for a capital region that is eight years past the recession.

Aside from the more than 2,000 people trying to survive outdoors—less than half with access to tents and cars, canvassers found—the population of homeless veterans jumped by 50 percent, to 469. (This, despite Steps Forward’s plan to end veteran homelessness—by 2015.) Disabled individuals with chronic bouts of homelessness more than doubled from 466 people in 2015 to 1,126 this year.

The statistical unveiling provided for some cognitive dissonance in the early goings of the July 10 presser, when political dignitaries and government officials politely lauded the efforts of their failing system of care. Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg interrupted that pattern.

“This is no time for celebration. This is no time for pats on the back,” he thundered at the audience. “This is not just a sobering report. This is a damning report.”

Saying he was tired of attending ribbon-cutting ceremonies to “celebrate marginal improvements,” Steinberg, whose city owns 61 percent of the estimated homeless population, renewed his calls for a consolidated political effort, primarily between a city and county that have been at loggerheads in recent months.

Reminding attendees of the city’s recent coup in snagging a $64 million federal grant to bring down homeless emergency room visits, Steinberg subtly prodded his county counterparts, who have yet to embrace his idea to redirect public housing resources over the next two years. “Simply put, this report is a call to action,” he said while county Board of Supervisors Chairman Don Nottoli stood nearby. “No excuses. No boundaries. The only thing that matters is to dramatically reduce these numbers.”

This was the first year that Sacramento State University collaborated on the point-in-time survey. Steps Forward brought on the university’s Institute for Social Research a month before the count to shore up the mapping of geographic areas where homeless people are likely to sleep. This year, that meant updating a list of “known areas” shortly before the count, rather than relying on outdated maps prepared months earlier. Volunteers covered approximately 150 square acres armed with $10 McDonald’s gift cards, reaching “areas of South Sacramento that were likely under-sampled in previous years,” the report’s executive summary states.

Applying this improved methodology retroactively, researchers say they probably would have found a larger unsheltered population back in 2015, meaning this year’s increase isn’t as drastic as it seems. But such asterisks did little to soften the blow of a humanitarian crisis that grew more visible after winter rains chased homeless campers up from flooded riverbanks.

It marked one of the few times that Mother Nature proved stronger than a political system that criminalizes its homeless residents into hiding.

“I think a lot of these people were homeless two years ago, but we didn’t admit it,” Rancho Cordova Mayor Donald Terry said at the press conference.

During his remarks, Steinberg defended an anti-camping ordinance he said he’d be willing to overturn back when he was campaigning. The ordinance, versions of which have been adopted across the region, directs law enforcement to arrest and cite homeless individuals for sleeping outdoors. Steinberg told the crowd there was no contradiction between treating homeless people with compassion and “prohibiting unlawful acts that are hostile or threatening to residents and businesses.”

Sacramento Loaves & Fishes Director of Advocacy Joan Burke had a different take. Speaking last, she asked attendees to put themselves in the shoes of a homeless person. “Some people will actually be in danger. Some will be cited for illegal camping. I believe none of them will have a [restful] night,” she said softly.