Spurning the mayor over shelter

Sacramento City Council members Larry Carr and Angelique Ashby have been the most vocal skeptics about spending Measure U money on homeless shelters

“May” surveys her homeless camp, located in the south city district of Councilman Larry Carr, who has resisted the mayor’s idea to put temporary shelters in all eight districts.

“May” surveys her homeless camp, located in the south city district of Councilman Larry Carr, who has resisted the mayor’s idea to put temporary shelters in all eight districts.

Photo by Raheem F. Hosseini

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the February 28, 2019, issue.

Before the storms pounded her homeless village, “May” stood on a bluff overlooking her encampment of Southeast Asian immigrants and asked if a shelter was coming any time soon to this part of Sacramento.

Short answer: No.

On February 21, Councilman Larry Carr, the area’s elected representative, told SN&R the camp’s existence along a flood-prone creek hadn’t made him any more receptive to the mayor’s idea to install temporary shelters in all eight council districts. “No decisions have been made at this point,” the District 8 councilman said last week.

Carr, who represents South Sacramento, and Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, who represents Natomas, have emerged as the most vocal skeptics to Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s idea for 100 shelter beds in each district.

Councilmen Jay Schenirer and Jeff Harris have already stuck their necks out by volunteering possible sites while other council members have indicated they were considering locations, but Carr and Ashby have remained noncommittal, which led to an airing of diverging philosophies at the February 12 City Council meeting.

Steinberg’s request that his council colleagues put some skin in the game is part of a broader strategy to sharply reduce homelessness in a city that has watched the visibility of the crisis—and its death toll—explode in recent years.

According to county coroner data compiled by the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, 127 homeless people died in 2017, a 75 percent increase from the year before. At the most recent interfaith memorial honoring people who died while unsheltered last year, 120 names were read aloud, said Bob Erlenbusch, the coalition’s executive director.

The mayor, who was recently appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to lead a statewide commission on homelessness and supportive housing, has been wrangling government and private commitments to flood the city with tens of millions in aid intended to make long-term and permanent gains on the vexing humanitarian crisis. In the meantime, however, City Hall is feeling continued public pressure to do something now.

While Steinberg has resisted critics’ demands that he expend political capital to end a city policy against sleeping outdoors, his call to council members to scatter 831 low-barrier shelter beds across their districts—at the cost of $37 million over two years—was intended to be a down payment on an ambitious promise.

“We have to get this done,” Steinberg said at the February 12 council meeting. “The amount of the time this city spends grappling with the impacts of this issue without actually sheltering people is astounding.”

Emily Halcon, the city’s homeless services coordinator, told the council that the scattered shelter plan could bring more than 2,700 people indoors, more than 1,200 of them permanently. But she estimated the two-year plan would cost closer to $40.5 million, and that $11.5 million of the financing was still unaccounted for at the cheaper estimate.

Steinberg was undeterred. He wants to use $15.7 million in one-time Measure U money to anchor the city’s portion; health care partners and other private donors have pledged to chip in as well. A good faith investment would leverage additional resources, he said.

Both Ashby and Carr spurned the mayor’s request to move quickly by identifying sites in their districts, and instead asked staff to pump the brakes by exploring other ways to spend the Measure U funds.

Carr reiterated that stance last week, saying he would wait for the city manager to present the council with alternatives at an upcoming meeting. While Carr requested the presentation, he said he didn’t know what those alternatives might look like.

“We have people who do this for a living,” he said.

Carr said he had three primary concerns with the mayor’s temporary shelter proposal, including whether it was actually temporary and should be anchored around Measure U revenue.

“After the triage, where do they go from there? Are there 5,000 vacant units for them to go to?” Carr said. “What happens when the money runs out?”

Asked if he saw any scenario in which he would support a temporary shelter in his district, Carr took a long beat before answering.

“I think it’s possible amongst many other scenarios,” he said. “I’m not presupposing shelters as a requirement to the solution. I’m saying solve for X.”

For Carr, X comes down to one question: “How do we house people who are homeless, not how do we create shelters.”

Steinberg contended that shelters are the best bridge to answering for X.

“We gotta get the most number of people off the city’s streets and off the riverbanks as possible,” he said at the council meeting. “Then once they’re in, we find ways [to get them permanently housed].”

Cha Vang, one of Carr’s constituents and the executive director of Hmong Innovating Politics, a grassroots civic engagement organization, said she was frustrated by his reluctance.

“I’m sad Carr isn’t moving faster on identifying a location,” she wrote in a Facebook message.

Back at her camp, May (whose real name SN&R is withholding due to the woman’s immigration status) made peace with the news that there would be no immediate shelter from the storms. Born in Thailand and raised in Sacramento, May said the dozen or so Hmong people she has camped with for the past five years have been homeless even longer than she has.

They have been a roving community for almost three years, relocating again and again under the threat of arrest. That pattern has made them less trusting of city and county officials, more reliant on each other and more willing to risk their safety by setting up camp on the banks of a teeming creek to avoid detection. Gesturing to the inventive tree houses and newly tilled vegetable garden, May explained that they had gotten this far on their own.

“We can’t just get things free. We have to do it for ourself,” she said. “We’re not expecting them to put us in a shelter or give us a house because we don’t deserve it.”

She almost sounded convinced.