Shelter in winter, death year-round: Advocates criticize seasonal political focus as Sacramento homeless deaths remain high

County officials acknowledge program failings, promise to get serious about housing-first model

A memorial wall at Friendship Park honors the people who died while homeless in Sacramento County. At least 79 names will be added this year.

A memorial wall at Friendship Park honors the people who died while homeless in Sacramento County. At least 79 names will be added this year.


This is an extended version of a story that ran in the December 15, 2016, issue.

On a Saturday afternoon this past January, Michael Lehmkuhl was killed for being where he wasn’t supposed to be.

When you’re homeless, as the 58-year-old man was at the time of his death, there are many places like that. Online court records show that Lehmkuhl already spent 72 days in jail last year for entering a dwelling without permission and was facing an unresolved loitering charge when a bullet found him on January 9.

On that day, Lehmkuhl was a good ways south of a tree-lined embankment along the American River, where those in his situation more easily fade from view. In a parking lot off Bercut Drive in North Sacramento, near a cottage suite of offices headquartering a construction company and a task force devoted to solving sex crimes, police say that Lehmkuhl encountered an armed security guard conducting a routine patrol of the River District.

To the guard, Lehmkuhl looked “suspicious,” police said in a media release at the time, and initiated contact. Lehmkuhl responded by becoming “aggressive,” the same release stated. Lehmkuhl took up a tree branch and swung. The guard pulled a gun and fired. When paramedics arrived a short time later, Lehmkuhl had expired.

Just another homeless death in Sacramento County.

There were upwards of 80 of them by the end of the last two Decembers—and the victims are getting younger, advocates say.

“In 2015, the average age for [homeless] women at their death was 47 years old, and for men it was 49,” said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, which collects homeless mortality data from the coroner’s office and other sources. “I think the deaths are increasing just because the homeless population has increased.”

On December 19 at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, religious leaders, elected representatives and homeless residents and advocates will gather for a third straight year to memorialize the men and women who died during 2016 the way that they lived—on the streets. By the time this interfaith service begins on Monday evening, called to order by Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg and Supervisor Patrick Kennedy, organizers will have at least 79 names to read—names that tell the story of an old public health crisis gathering cobwebs.

Every year around this time, elected officials reopen their winter shelters for a few months and make compassion-lite promises to uplift their most impoverished constituents. And every year, more people fall to the margins, and perish in quiet, anonymous fashion.

The 69-year-old homeless woman was found dead under a freeway overpass behind a grocery store north of Oak Park the morning of August 2.

Initially, first responders didn’t notice any signs of violence, police said in a release, but detectives and crime scene investigations canvassed the scene anyway. A day later, police say a preliminary autopsy showed the victim sustained physical trauma that appeared consistent with an assault.

Five months after the grim discovery, the official cause of death is still pending and the coroner’s office has yet to release the woman’s name due to an internal policy that requires family to be notified first. It’s unclear whether the woman had any.

“We were unable to locate family for her,” Coroner Kimberly Gin said in an email. All Gin can say is that the victim was white and might be from Sacramento, though even that part is unclear.

The woman’s nameless death fits a troubling pattern.

Between 5 and 6 percent of homeless deaths in Sacramento County are the result of homicide, SRCEH found. According to its analysis, the homicide rate is 31 times higher for people without homes than those who reside indoors. Suicides and substance-use deaths are also high, exposing a lack of access to medical and psychiatric services. On average, less than 30 percent of homeless deaths result from natural causes.

Over the years, the dead have been found in a starburst pattern around the central city and in ligature streaks tracked out along the interstate lines. The deaths happen at all times of the year, divided into near-equal quarter-sized chunks through the four seasons. The idea that the homeless population faces a greater threat in the winter—at least in terms of fatalities—is a myth.

“It doesn’t make any difference,” Erlenbusch said. “Winter, spring, summer or fall, 25 percent of [homeless] deaths are in each of the four seasons. Even though intuitively most people think [mortality rates would be higher in winter] because of the harsher weather … that’s not true.”

Loaves & Fishes advocacy director Joan Burke agreed that the real lesson was that being homeless is a year-round danger.

“It’s unsafe and unhealthy to be homeless any time of year,” Burke said.

The people living the experience know this well.

In Lehmkuhl’s case, police investigated the shooting but determined he was largely responsible for what happened. The department’s media release said Lehmkuhl was shot after he “attacked the guard causing him to fall to the ground.” Police submitted their findings to the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office, which declined to pursue the case after determining “there was not sufficient evidence to file charges and obtain a conviction,” spokeswoman Shelly Orio said in an email.

Most homeless homicides end without a satisfying resolution.

The exception that proves the rule occurred December 2, when a Sacramento Superior Court judge handed down a life sentence to a homeless man who attacked two other homeless men.

Kenneth Hill was sentenced to 39-years-to-life for the stabbing murder of Luis Cortez in October 2015 and the attempted murder of Hwan Chong, a mentally ill man whom Hill sliced in the neck two months earlier, the DA’s office said in a release. All three were homeless at the time of the crimes.

As for the woman discovered in August behind a Smart & Final near Broadway and Alhambra Boulevard, news of her suspicious death moved swiftly through the local homeless community.

“The lady was robbed and beaten,” said Gwendolyn Stewart, who camps four blocks from where the victim was found.

For Stewart, law enforcement is a source of anxiety, not comfort.

Stewart lives near a quiet residential street with her dog, where she and her housed neighbors greet each other by name. In April, police arrested Stewart for violating a city ordinance that forbids storing personal belongings on public property, even as some of her neighbors shouted that Stewart had their permission to do so while recording the confrontation on cellphone. The district attorney’s office is prosecuting Stewart for a misdemeanor, online court records show.

Stewart said the officers who took her into custody were from the department’s Impact team, which was created to provide service referrals and “compassionate policing” to those who live on the streets. To Stewart, who was also arrested last year for loitering in a park but had the charge dismissed in February, police represent “a living nightmare.”

As Stewart spoke with SN&R, after washing the sidewalk in front of Wellspring Women’s Center, a lifted Ford truck that resembles the one driven by the Impact team entered the street. Stewart fell silent as her widened eyes clocked the truck turn and disappear.

“My heart pounds every time I see it,” she said.

The annual death count has revealed the folly of the political response, which is and has been to fixate on winter shelters rather than a year-round strategy, some advocates say.

“The county has not increased [shelter operating days],” Erlenbusch said. “They do the winter shelter program, which is great and that adds another 150 beds to the system from November to March 31. Then on April Fools’ Day … we lose 23 percent of our bed capacity in 24 hours. The county could move a lot quicker to create what they’ve been calling a triage center, along the lines of San Francisco, but they haven’t moved to create that yet.”

On November 1, true to form, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors reauthorized two such programs. First, supervisors boosted their share of a winter sanctuary program 28 percent to $360,000, to add beds and help with transportation to and from shelter locations. The sanctuary program, administered by Sacramento Steps Forward, provides overnight lodging and meals at 30 religious sites between November 21 and April 30. Supervisors augmented that by 25 beds per night, by adding an extra $75,000 on a winter shelter program in North Highlands through March 31.

The conjoined programs have been staples of the county’s approach to homelessness the past five years. While the winter-focused efforts can get some out of the cold, they’re falling short of one devastating mark—reducing homeless deaths throughout the whole year.

Erlenbusch is concerned about the mounting number of names he’s collected the last two Decembers, reflecting a trend in which homeless deaths in Sacramento County skyrocketed 68 percent in 12 years—from 29 in 2002 to 91 in 2014. The 79 deaths recorded through December 8 this year are the second most since SRCEH began tracking this data, and one more than in 2015.

Even by the superficial accounting standards of the federal government, which requires local jurisdictions to count their homeless residents on one wintry night every other year, homelessness ticked an almost 5 percent increase between 2013 and 2015, to nearly 2,700. Another 5,200 are estimated to experience homelessness during the course of the year.

But such counts don’t account for homeless individuals or families who go unseen by volunteer monitors, including those sleeping on friends’ couches, in parked cars or otherwise hidden locations.

“What we currently have is an oversaturated system,” Burke said. “There is no way they can serve everyone who is seeking shelter, even with this additional hundred beds that are wintertime-only beds. Ideally, we would have a true crisis response system where someone seeking shelter would be provided shelter that night—no waiting list involved.”

When asked if he thought the county was doing enough to respond, Erlenbusch was not shy in his critique. “About 60 percent of the deaths of homeless people are on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, so we were pushing for the last couple years for a weekend shelter … but they haven’t done that,” Erlenbusch said.

Local officials are finally acknowledging their shortfalls, at least vocally.

During the first of two workshops hosted by county supervisors on the topic of responding to the homelessness crisis, Countywide Services Agency Chief Deputy Executive Paul Lake admitted that current programs had failed to curb long-term homelessness.

“There is a general consensus that our continuum of care is not working,” Lake told supervisors during the October 18 workshop. “You very clearly stated to us in recent months that the system is not working, and we concur.”

Lake also bemoaned the complexity of the issue, saying one workshop—even one with a vaulted name like “Homelessness Crisis Response: Investing In What Works”—would not fix everything.

A County Executive Office report from the workshop cited the problems shelters currently face: longer lengths of stay, increasing operational costs and “very low rates of exits to permanent housing, as low as 20 percent in both the family and single-adult system.”

For homeless individuals, there are additional barriers, like restrictive entry rules that prevent people from bringing their pets or staying with their loved ones, midday sign-up times and complicated bureaucratic processes which the report stated effectively cause homeless individuals to miss out on necessary services and shelter.

According to Burke, the Salvation Army can average nightly waiting lists of approximately 70 men and 40 women at its segregated shelters. “With this winter shelter opening [our guests] are vying for the privilege of getting indoors,” Burke said.

Both Burke and Erlenbusch pointed to rising rents and gentrification as major factors in Sacramento’s increased challenge to meet the needs of a growing homeless population.

The second workshop, held November 15, confirmed the cause for concern. Titled “Increasing Permanent Housing Opportunities for Persons Experiencing Homelessness,” an attached report showed Sacramento County’s average rent prices have increased significantly, from $814 per month in 2004 to a projected $1,173 per month this year, with prices projected to reach $1,264 per month in 2020.

Advocates and politicians agree the most effective way to combat chronic homelessness and homeless mortality rates is through a housing-first initiative. This strategy focuses on getting homeless individuals into permanent housing above all else, and removing barriers to accessing shelter.

The next steps will take place in early 2017, when Lake and the county’s new director of homeless initiatives, Cynthia Cavanaugh, plan to formally request that supervisors require family shelters to operate by a housing-first model that, in theory, would remove or at least lower such barriers.

For the time being, Erlenbusch said he will keep reading the names of those who may otherwise die unknown.

“I think that it provides a dignified service for people who are generally invisible to the housed population,” Erlenbusch said. “Everybody deserves to be remembered in some fashion, that they were here on Earth. This is a way for at least an hour to read their name, read their age, and [make them] be visible to the housed population.”

The woman who died under the overpass will have to wait a while longer.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that the homicide rate was 31 percent higher for homeless people than those who live indoors, rather than 31 times. SN&R regrets the error.