Sacramento County balances budget as low-income-housing programs struggle

Officials withhold money once intended for program-heavy charities like Volunteers of America

Shane David Hutchings says he’d be jobless and worse if not for Volunteers of America’s residential treatment home. The county recently cut funding to the VOA, among other low-income assistance programs.

Shane David Hutchings says he’d be jobless and worse if not for Volunteers of America’s residential treatment home. The county recently cut funding to the VOA, among other low-income assistance programs.

PHOTO BY lovelle harris

Life was relatively stable for Shane David Hutchings, until he reached his 23rd year. That’s when impulsive decisions wedged Hutchings away from his newborn daughter and dropped him in a fog of drug abuse.

He would spend the next two decades in a narcohaze, committing petty crimes just to keep the dope monster fed.

A two-year county-jail sentence last year returned Hutchings to a familiar setting: Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove, where he spent eight hours a day taking life-skills classes, courtesy of a contract with Volunteers of America.

Released with an ankle monitor into one of the VOA’s residential treatment homes four months ago, Hutchings, now 45, says it was the best thing that ever happened to him. He recently landed a job repairing hybrid-car batteries at Greentecauto in Rancho Cordova and is paying both taxes and child support for the first time in 15 years.

“All that stuff’s getting done now,” he said proudly. “I just thank God for VOA.”

But assistance programs like the VOA need some assistance themselves.

It was only last month that Sacramento County proclaimed its $3.6 billion budget “back in the black” in a news release. Officials neglected to say they eked out their savings by withholding money once intended for program-heavy charities like Volunteers of America.

Those savings helped build a $32.5 million surplus, which the board of supervisors dedicated to traditional agencies—nearly $9.5 million went to hiring problem-oriented sheriff’s deputies, parks rangers and code-enforcement officers, and bolstering the district attorney’s office, among other things.

Meanwhile, county-assisted programs for low-income residents teeter on the brink.

The Salvation Army secured $75,000 to keep its 125 shelter beds at 1200 N. B Street full until the end of the year. Which is a big deal, since the shelter isn’t just “three hots and a cot,” according to coordinator Maj. Ray Yant.

Those who complete the program—which offers individualized case management and modest health services—transition into permanent housing at a 70 percent clip, Yant said.

At the time Yant appealed to supervisors for help, the shelter had 52 beds empty and 160 people on the waiting list. The major anticipated that number to grow as the season cooled.

His September 10 bid bought the program some time, but he’s already eyeing an uncertain horizon: “Yeah, but what do we do after January?” he wondered.

The county was one of the few municipal beneficiaries still kicking money into the Regional Human Rights/Fair Housing Commission, although far less than it used to. Elk Grove has also reduced its funding, while the cities of Sacramento, Citrus Heights and Rancho Cordova pulled their financial support altogether.

“[I]t is very possible that we will have to close our doors” by the end of November, interim executive director Betty Gwiazdon told SN&R. “The practical impact is that hundreds of people will have nowhere to go for the service we provide.

“It’s desperate, to put it mildly.”

The commission mediated rental-housing disputes and provided information to 5,300 people this past year alone.

It’s not that county officials were unsympathetic to the shared plight of these service providers. After all, if they were insisting on homeless campers leaving the American River Parkway at dusk and hiring more park rangers to carry that message, there needs to be compassionate alternatives, said Supervisor Phil Serna.

Alternatives like the VOA, a “spiritually based” national nonprofit geared toward veterans with no other place to go. The local iteration, which has existed in Sacramento since 1911, has expanded its reach beyond those who served their country, assisting families, seniors, former foster youth and people with substance-abuse issues. People like Hutchings.

Hutchings spent the last 18 years of his life in and out of jail or prison. In 2006, he pled no contest to felony possession of a controlled substance and was sentenced to two years in state prison, according to online superior-court records. His last local case was in September 2012, when Hutchings pled no contest to the same charge.

In the half-dozen years between, Hutchings rode an all-too-familiar carousel of drug convictions, probation violations, failed stints in drug court and months behind bars.

It’s an old story, but one with a glimmer of a happy ending:

“I just want to be an example; I don’t want to be a number,” he reflected on Monday, during a lunch break at his new job. “That’s what I’m going to try to do.”