Sacramento’s $100,000 homeless man

Bad luck put him on the streets. City Hall kept him there.

Jessica Bartholow, a legislative advocate at the Western Center on Law & Poverty, tried to help her uncle clear myriad infractions related to his homelessness after they reconnected in 2013

Jessica Bartholow, a legislative advocate at the Western Center on Law & Poverty, tried to help her uncle clear myriad infractions related to his homelessness after they reconnected in 2013


Raheem F. Hosseini contributed to this report.

From the steps of the state Capitol, Russell Bartholow told a crowd what it was like to live under a bridge in Oak Park for 15 years.

During that period, he said, police cited him dozens of times for “soliciting, panhandling [and] sleeping,” all illegal activities in the city of Sacramento. To feed himself, Bartholow started growing his own food—another illegal act.

“I had a beautiful garden, spent two-and-a-half years growing it,” Bartholow told the gathering. “They came in and poisoned it with herbicide. Destroyed it. We ate it, scraped it clean, which gave me cancer … which put me in the hospital.”

Bartholow, then 54, was speaking at a February 2015 press conference organized to pressure state lawmakers to adopt the Right to Rest Act, legislation that would have decriminalized activities associated with homelessness. Within two years, Bartholow died and two iterations of the bill failed in different Senate committees.

Despite acknowledging that there aren’t enough emergency resources for those without shelter, area politicians have resisted repeated calls to rescind local ordinances against sleeping outdoors and possessing life-saving equipment. During overnight storms last month, two homeless people died on City Hall property, elevating Sacramento’s humanitarian debate to a national level.

Bartholow didn’t start out homeless. But, like thousands of others in Sacramento County, once he found himself on the streets, he entered an alternate reality where the government couldn’t hear him; where those supposed to help instead focused on erasing his existence; and where the only permanent home the county offered him was in jail.

According to Sacramento Superior Court records, police papered Bartholow with 190 citations, infractions that, because of his inability to pay fines or make court dates, cost him 104 days in jail and exposed him to more than $104,000 in fines.

His story isn’t unique.

According to booking logs examined by SN&R, approximately 30 unlawful camping citations have been issued across the county since late October.

It’s a system that feeds on absurdity, in which homelessness can cost more than a Midtown loft and survival is a crime.

Bartholow spent the last part of his life as a fugitive, trying to outrun the forces that were coming for him. Where did it get him?

Where does it get anyone?

When the bottom falls out

After riveting during World War II, then canning soup for Campbell's, Gertrude Bartholow took in more than 60 children as a foster mother. The last one was a slight, shy boy named Russell, whom she fell in love with and adopted.

“He was the moody teenager down at the end of the hallway who had a collection of comic books and fluorescent posters on the wall,” recalled Jessica Bartholow, Russell’s niece. “He would play Pink Floyd, and [my sister and I] would sing outside his door to him.”

Through high school, Jessica remembered Russell as “beyond normally brilliant” in science and math. But on the cusp of graduation, Russell said he got “kicked in the head” by white students for being Native American, leaving him with a brain injury that Jessica says was never treated.

After a few years on his own, Russell married a woman and had a child. He moved back in with his adopted mother, taking care of her and her husband as they aged. But in 2000 he was arrested for a drug-related offense.

In the 30 days Russell was incarcerated, his parents died, his relatives sold the house, and his wife and son moved on with their lives. Let out of jail, with no place else to go, Russell moved under a bridge in Oak Park.

He lost contact with Jessica, whose family was also struggling with homelessness.

His years on the streets would not be kind.

At the 2015 Capitol rally, Russell told the audience that the police visited him daily, calling him over by his first name and having a ticket already filled out before he arrived. Sometimes he was cited twice a day, court records show.

Though a full 132 of Russell’s cases were either dismissed or had their fines waived, there were other costs.

Being in jail caused Russell to miss appointments to obtain government assistance, as part of eight attempts over 13 years to get money for which he qualified due to the lingering effects of the brain injury, which he believed contributed to paranoia and drug addiction. To pay for living expenses and fines, Russell turned to panhandling or selling flowers—which only led to more arrests.

The police, he told those assembled, harassed him like “it was a game.”

It’s a vicious cycle experienced by many.

According to the most recent baseline estimates, at least 5,200 people experience homelessness in Sacramento County in a given year, a number that is expected to notch upward following the most recent point-in-time homeless count last month.

Advocates for the homeless believe the city and county of Sacramento are misusing roughly half the funds dedicated to addressing this crisis.

Of the $13.6 million spent on homelessness by the city during the 2014-15 fiscal year, $7 million was spent on “mitigating the impacts of homelessness”—and 75 percent of that goes to the police and fire departments. The city has 11 municipal codes criminalizing activities like panhandling, resting or camping in public places.

The county spends about $40 million on homelessness annually, $6 million of which comes from the general fund, according to the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, a nonprofit advocacy group. Of that $6 million, about half is dedicated to “mitigating” its impacts.

Here’s what that looks like: Between March 2014 and October 2016, county park rangers shut down 2,611 homeless camps and issued 2,395 citations, yet made only 104 referrals to the Department of Human Assistance, according to county park ranger activity reports.

“I see it every day,” said Deni Blakney, a homeless woman who lives in her car with her husband and two dogs. “Cops come by and tell them to take their tents down. And if they don’t do it, then they come right back around again and they take their stuff and destroy it. It’s terrible. It’s awful. That’s their stuff. That’s their life right there. That’s their home. That’s all they have.”

From September 2014 to October 2015, SRCEH surveyed 297 people experiencing homelessness, 74.8 percent of whom reported being discriminated against by law enforcement. Sacramento Steps Forward, the county’s lead agency tasked with ending homelessness, surveyed 1,228 homeless people from January to October 2015 and found that 80 percent had spent time in county jail.

Not only do anti-camping laws cost millions to enforce, said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of SRCEH, but they make it more difficult for a person to exit homelessness. Citing his organization’s “Access Denied” study, Erlenbusch said that a majority of the 17 local service providers that responded to his survey felt criminalization hurt the homeless’ “ability across the board to get employment, benefits, a job, etc.”

Blakney recognizes that law enforcement and neighborhood residents don’t like the mess that can occasionally accumulate around a person who lives on the streets.

However, she notes that it can be hard to keep clean when public access to bathrooms and dumpsters is severely limited, especially at nighttime. She keeps bags and buckets in her car in case of emergency, but she feels there could be a more humane approach.

“If they just come by and say, ’If you pick up your trash, I’m not going to tell you to take your tent down,’ it’ll show the homeless people that they’re getting a little more respect,” she said. “Because they look at us like we’re scum. And it’s cold and it’s wrong. Because we’re all human. We all have a story. We’re all out here for a reason.”

Down and out by law

For now, officials seem reluctant to change course.

On February 1, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, Steps Forward and Sacramento State—through its auxiliary nonprofit, University Enterprises Inc.—entered into a three-way partnership aimed at reducing “homeless-related crime,” a concept that makes Jessica Bartholow wary because of how it’s been implemented up until now.

“We need to stop treating someone like a criminal because they can’t afford a place to live,” said Jessica, who now works as a legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law & Poverty. “The more that we establish laws that make a person without a home a criminal, the less able we are to gain their trust.”

Funded for three years by a $700,000 Smart Policing Initiative grant, the pilot program aims to “research and deploy collaborative, data-driven solutions” to policing the homeless population, according to a staff report. Sheriff’s Lt. Steve Dutra, assistant commander of the North Patrol Division, said the program’s real impetus is to reduce service calls—not necessarily crime—to the unincorporated county north of the American River. A majority of those calls involve complaints of panhandling, suspicious persons, drug dealing, loitering and other activities directly or indirectly associated with homelessness.

At the same time, Dutra said, the “twofold” approach will try to “find services for people to help them get off the street.”

According to Dutra, some aspects are still “being worked out.” The project’s actual implementation is purposely vague, he added, so it can be flexible and ever evolving, allowing the county to “tweak things here and there.”

But Erlenbusch criticized the program for spending resources to “research” an already answered question.

“Of course those [crimes] are going to go down if you’re in stable housing and have an income,” Erlenbusch said. “To spend that amount of money researching what seems to be in some cases fairly obvious … I don’t see anything that seems to be very innovative.”

Erlenbusch also questioned the program’s focus, saying that the county should direct resources toward erasing barriers to housing, such as anti-camping ordinances, which he said perpetuate the cycle of homelessness.

Steps Forward CEO Ryan Loofbourrow defended the partnership’s small-scale focus, as it will formally analyze housing barriers for people without shelter, then work toward solutions to overcome them.

But success will be measured by a reduction in complaints received by law enforcement, which raises another problematic aspect of the partnership—having cops and service providers work hand in hand.

According to Loofbourrow, though the sheriff’s department is overseeing the program, Steps Forward-employed “navigators” will be the primary point of contact with homeless individuals. Alongside officers, they will work on a “very personal” level to keep the homeless safe and healthy while assisting those with mental health issues, Loofbourrow said.

But Erlenbusch sees potential problems if homeless people associate the helpers with cops who enforce anti-camping policies.

“The navigator program is built on trust,” Erlenbusch said. “If somehow homeless people sense that they’re working in cooperation with law enforcement, they’re not going to trust them. I hope that that’s not the case. But that could be one of the really sad, unintended consequences of a not very well thought-out project.”

As for lifting the camping ban, North Sacramento Councilman Allen Warren recently proposed doing so at the city level, an idea that received a chilly reception from fellow council members and pushback from Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who prefers longer-term solutions.

In response to two recent homeless deaths on City Hall property during overnight storms, officials last month opened a facility for overnight use with health assessments, service referrals and supplies for dogs.

But the seasonal facility was opened with the understanding that homeless people would no longer be allowed to rest on City Hall property, which has been fenced off. Meanwhile, activists have complained that police are frisking homeless people for illegal drugs and weapons before allowing them entry into two city-operated weather shelters.

Courtney Collins, the daughter of one of the dead homeless men, David Collins, flew from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to testify before the city council on February 7.

“My father died right outside, in only his clothes, with only a couple dollars in his pocket,” she told council members. “I was terrified to find out about the very legal confiscation of blankets, sleeping bags and other sources of warmth and shelter for those living on the streets by the police. … I have been unraveling truths so ugly, it feels impossible to go up against such a monstrous system.”

In response, Steinberg informed her that the city recently opened five shelters.

“That’s not enough,” Collins said over her shoulder as she walked back to her seat.

“I know,” Steinberg answered.

In a meeting last week, Steinberg told activists he wants to ensure police aren’t confiscating survival gear when enforcing the camping ban, said the mayor’s spokeswoman, Kelly Rivas.

Hope from a hospital bed

After eating from his poisoned garden and falling ill, Russell Bartholow was admitted to the UC Davis Medical Center in October 2013. It was there that he spotted the name of his long-lost niece in the pages of an SN&R article and reached out to her.

When Jessica went to see him, Russell bore the marks of many years on the streets.

“All his teeth were gone,” Jessica said. “He’d been set on fire and spent months in the burn unit. He had been beat to a pulp several times. He had scars all over his body. And not just like little scars. Big scars.”

Russell recalled that day more positively.

“I met my niece through an act of God,” he said in February 2015.

Jessica had to overturn official government records declaring Russell deceased. She then got to work securing Russell a birth certificate, an identification card, a cellphone, Supplemental Security Income, health insurance and a spot at a methadone clinic.

There, he met an old friend who needed a roommate, giving Russell a place to live after shelters and hotels had turned him down due to lack of space and/or Russell’s lack of paperwork. He made friends on Facebook and reconnected with his son, Kieran.

“It was a couple months of advocacy, just a couple of hours at a time,” Jessica said of that period. “It didn’t take that much to find somebody a home and dignity and safety.”

But a laundry list of unresolved citations related to his homelessness, totaling up to more than $100,000, weighed on Russell. As he biked to the methadone clinic each day, he feared that police officers would stop and arrest him for his many outstanding warrants, issued for having failed to appear at least once in some 170 different cases.

“Here’s a man who’s really no threat,” Jessica said. “For the most part, his warrants were related to sleeping and camping. He wanted them cleared up. But there was really no feasible way for him to accomplish that.”

Based on Russell’s experience, Jessica became a major advocate for California’s Right to Rest Act legislation. The proposal got held in committee twice in the state Senate, never making it to a vote due to bipartisan opposition. The city and county of Sacramento officially opposed it, too.

Death and warrants

In the absence of legal protections, there are few safe harbors open to the homeless.

One is at the newly opened Friendship Park, where assistant director Hannah Ozanian says Loaves & Fishes takes a “love first and questions later” approach.

The new facility features gazebos that offer shade in the summer and heat in the winter. Guests can get a free breakfast and lunch and access the myriad services offered by the charity to help people survive on the streets and move off them. But, according to Blakney, the best part is something far simpler.

“Going to the bathroom and getting a shower is the most important thing here,” she said. “When you get a shower, it makes you feel good about yourself. You feel human.”

As far as housing goes, there’s a pittance. A recent Metrostudy report found that production of homes costing under $200,000 had ceased.

The 150-room Mercy Housing complex at Seventh and H streets offers half its space to the formerly homeless and the other half to those earning 40-50 percent of the area median income. The complex also offers a health clinic run by The Effort, easy access to public transit and a coordinated entry system that tailors services to residents’ needs.

But Mercy Housing President Doug Shoemaker acknowledges that even this is insufficient. “The problem in Sacramento, and everywhere else, is scarcity,” he said. “When we open new buildings, there are 10, 20, 30 times as many applicants as there are apartments available.”

Erlenbusch hasn’t been encouraged by the wave of gentrification sweeping through downtown that’s already turned one single-resident-occupancy motel for extremely low-income people into the gleaming Kimpton hotel next to the Golden 1 Center. With only a 2 to 4 percent vacancy rate in the city, real estate can grow expensive as developers seek to take full advantage of the marketplace.

Erlenbusch and Shoemaker recognize that no neighborhood wants the entire burden of housing the destitute, but as long as it’s insufficient, the millions spent on “mitigating” homelessness rather than preventing it will continue indefinitely.

“The cost of doing nothing is exorbitant,” Erlenbusch said.

Steinberg is working to give homeless people access to 200 public housing units and 1,600 federal rent vouchers, but most of this is controlled by the county Board of Supervisors, which demurred on this proposal during the February 1 joint session, promising to investigate it and return with an analysis in March.

One other idea: San Francisco Assemblyman David Chiu proposed to eliminate a tax break that allows mortgage deductions on second homes—a measure that he says cost the state $300 million last year—and use that money to pay for affordable housing through tax credits.

“I would dare somebody to explain to me why that’s not better public policy than the current situation,” Shoemaker said.

Jessica has another idea. Similar to a program for foster children, she wants to create a registry of homeless people so they can potentially connect with long-lost relatives who would be willing to take them in.

It’s an idea based on personal experience.

After their reunion, Jessica stayed in close contact with Russell, texting him daily as he adjusted to living indoors again. He became a major signature gatherer for the Right to Rest Act. But before the proposal was denied a vote last year, doctors informed Jessica that cancer had spread throughout Russell’s body. There was nothing they could do for him.

Jessica informed Kieran of the news and he traveled to see his father. They asked Russell what he wanted to do. He said, “I’d like to just fall asleep and not wake up,” Jessica remembered.

So the doctors gave him liquid pain medication and allowed him to administer the dosage himself. Two days later, on October 5, 2016, surrounded by loved ones and in a warm bed, Russell Bartholow fell asleep for the final time.

According to court records, there are still 37 active warrants for his arrest.