Steinberg’s grand plan: Mayor thinks big on housing homeless residents, but proposal exposes rift with county officials

City and county agree on one thing: Arresting people for sleeping outside is still good policy

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the March 2, 2017, issue.

An audacious plan to house 1,600 homeless people over the next two years pushed simmering philosophical differences between city and county politicians to the forefront last week, while also stopping short of addressing the crisis on City Hall’s doorstep.

During a February 21 workshop on identifying homeless housing solutions, Mayor Darrell Steinberg announced that the city would take the unusual step of applying for a federal waiver the county had declined to pursue, even though the waiver could free up tens of millions of dollars in matching funds to get people off the streets and into permanent housing.

“This is not us vs. the county. It is just factual,” Steinberg said of the county’s “administrative” decision to pass on the Whole Person Care waiver program. “Every county other than Sacramento County with a population of a million people or more is applying for the waiver. The county made that decision and we respect that.”

Even though counties would normally apply for the waiver because they’re the ones managing local health and human services systems, Steinberg said he received a call from a senior official in Gov. Jerry Brown’s office inviting the city to submit an outline of an application by March 1, when applications were due.

Steinberg said the senior official offered to help take the city’s application the rest of the way, as the Sacramento area deals with an ongoing homelessness crisis that has resulted in four known deaths this year, two on City Hall property.

Steinberg, the former state Senate leader who recently mediated a public dispute between Republic FC owners, sought to portray the city’s decision in nonjudgmental terms.

“This is not oppositional to the county in any way,” he said earlier in the workshop. “For, in the end, the city should not and cannot go its own way. We need each other.” But, he added, “While we’re going to work cooperatively with all of our partners, we’re not going to wait.”

Even without the matching dollars offered by the waiver, the city’s broad-brushstrokes proposal last week was financially ambitious, calling for an investment of $20 million to house 1,600 homeless residents over two years, while preventing an equal number of vulnerable people from falling into homelessness.

If the city wins the federal waiver, Steinberg suggested, it could double those numbers.

Homeless activists commended the long-term plan but pointed out that the short-term situation was still pressing.

“I thought it was an outstanding proposal,” said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. “But what are we doing to meet the immediate needs?”

The lowest current estimates are that approximately 5,200 county residents experience homelessness at some point during the year. But a more substantive count involving K-12 schools revealed that nearly 12,000 enrolled students in the county were without housing back in 2013. Emily Halcon, the city’s homeless-services coordinator, said about 25,000 county residents are precariously housed and at risk of slipping into homelessness.

Erlenbusch noted that the county’s winter sanctuary program ends March 31, removing up to 100 overnight shelter slots. Meanwhile, the city and county continue to enforce ordinances against sleeping outside.

“What about April the first, to keep people alive, keep people warm?” Erlenbusch wondered.

The city has resigned itself to taking the long view.

As presented by Halcon, the two-year plan calls for putting 1,200 Housing Choice vouchers controlled by the county in the hands of homeless residents, while spending additional money to grease reluctant landlords to accept the vouchers. Another 400 city-controlled public housing units would be dedicated to people without shelter. The plan also calls for a heavy investment in case management services for those receiving housing help.

That last component is critical to the plan working, Erlenbusch contended. Without an explicit income and employment strategy, Erlenbusch said, the people the city brings off the streets risk sliding back into homelessness once the assistance stops. “This is not going to work if you don’t have services behind it,” he told SN&R.

The plan doesn’t come cheap.

Steinberg said the city has conservatively estimated it would need $18.5 million to carry out its two-year strategy, but officials are trying to round up $20 million. The city has pledged $5 million from its general fund, with Sutter Health on board to contribute another $5 million and raise an equal amount from local foundations and businesses. The last $5 million could come from the county, state or other partners, the presentation indicated.

The fact that the county’s participation isn’t assured was another sign of tensions between the two political bodies, which have enjoyed an uneasy alliance since the county relinquished sole responsibility for managing federal homelessness dollars to Sacramento Steps Forward, an initiative launched in 2009 by then-Mayor Kevin Johnson.

“We have not yet figured out how to share that burden in a way that’s both responsible, fair and—even more important than either of those things—actually helps our people,” Councilman Steve Hansen said at last week’s workshop.

Hansen was especially critical of the county, claiming it snubbed the city’s request to partner on a separate grant worth $6 million over three years. “We were told, ‘You’re not worthy of being partners with,’” Hansen said. “And that, I hate to say, between friends, is a really hard thing to hear.”

A county spokeswoman said the city essentially waited until the last minute to partner on the grant.

As for the county’s decision not to chase free money through the federal waiver program, that’s also complicated.

The Whole Person Care waiver gives local jurisdictions flexibility in how they spend federal aid to improve health outcomes for Medicaid recipients. The caveat is that they have to prove that spending the money on nonmedical services—like housing vouchers for the homeless—reduces health care costs and utilization.

County spokeswoman Samantha Mott told SN&R that’s the primary reason the county didn’t pursue the grant. With multiple hospitals and managed-care systems, all with their different information management systems, Mott said, “How would we track and present this data?”

The mayor’s deputy chief of staff, Kelly Fong Rivas, told SN&R that city officials were “huddled up and crafting a game plan” to answer that question.

One of the most pressing issues elected leaders have yet to address is the apparatus they’ve created for delivering services to the most vulnerable.

Since coming into office, Steinberg has sought to use his political clout to bring city and county politicians to the same table, resulting in a rare summit on January 31. But the marathon meeting instead shined a spotlight on the shockingly discombobulated “coordinated entry” system that had sprouted under the watch of previous administrations. Created with the goal of providing a streamlined path to services for those needing immediate relief, the system has instead become a byzantine maze that’s difficult to penetrate and almost impossible to exit.

“Our system we currently have is overwhelmed and, perhaps, pushed beyond its capacity,” Halcon acknowledged last week. “Because of this clash of supply and demand, there’s a lot of waiting, there’s a lot of back-and-forth and a lot of general confusion about how to get from start to end.”

That has created a wait list for housing that is “70,000 deep currently,” Halcon said. Meanwhile, homeless services providers charged with navigating the coordinated entry system say the only reason that number isn’t bigger is because Steps Forward has made it harder to get their clients onto its community queue, which is the first step to accessing housing services.

“Coordinated entry is uncoordinated,” Erlenbusch said. “It’s a mess right now.”

Unless city and county leaders address these deep-rooted structural issues, Erlenbusch said, the city’s voucher-based plan “will just be a colossal failure.”