Taking it to the streets

Our writer joins a one-night survey to count Sacramento’s homeless

The homeless folks out there in Sacramento on a cold, wet night in January are “the truly down and out, the sick and troubled, the shattered … but not broken.”

The homeless folks out there in Sacramento on a cold, wet night in January are “the truly down and out, the sick and troubled, the shattered … but not broken.”

SN&R Photo By John Motsinger

Like anyone who has lived in an urban center for longer than a few months, I learned to ignore the homeless long ago. Not ignore, exactly, because I definitely still notice them, even make eye contact sometimes and give a little nod what’s up. I’ll hand off my Styrofoam carton of half-eaten enchiladas or forfeit the 40 cents jangling in my pocket, but I rarely look beyond the surface. In most big cities, there are simply too many of them to care about any one mangy-looking guy on the street. Why give this dude money but not the next?

My dismissive attitude probably stems from years spent living in San Francisco’s Mission District, where muggings were common and vandalism was a near nightly occurrence, and the police were legitimately needed on regular patrol. My limited encounters have never answered fundamental questions like, how do these people become homeless in the first place? And how can I really help them?

The 2008 street count seemed like the perfect opportunity to find out. So on Tuesday, January 29, I joined a team of intrepid volunteers to learn more about this marginalized population. For the second year in a row, the Sacramento County Department of Human Assistance has coordinated a massive effort to count the homeless living on the streets as part of the city and county’s 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. An accurate “point-in-time” count is instrumental in determining the extent of the need and securing federal, state and local dollars to implement a solution.

The picture painted by last year’s count was not pretty. A total of 2,452 people were counted, including 1,005 living on the streets. Within the population counted, 54 percent had alcohol- or drug-related disabilities, 28 percent had mental-health disabilities, 23 percent had been victims of domestic violence and 16 percent were veterans. Using a statistical method of extrapolation developed in New York City and Los Angeles, those 2,452 counted on January 30, 2007, represent an estimated 4,367 people countywide who were homeless at some point during the year.

Anyone who thinks, as I did, that these people are out on the streets by choice is wrong. They are not the anarchist punks on Haight Street bumming your change to buy weed so they can frolic in Golden Gate Park stoned all afternoon. No, the folks out there in Sacramento on a cold, wet night in January were the truly down and out, the sick and troubled, the shattered … but not broken.

My own night of counting was actually less enlightening than I had hoped. We canvassed a soggy creek bed snaking below several underpasses near Auburn Boulevard and Watt Avenue and a nearby park. The spot may be a prime location with shade and running water during the summer, but in the winter, it’s just wet and muddy and not particularly close to anyone who would be likely to help if there was need.

Frankly, the area was a little scary, too. Stumbling through underbrush in the darkness looking for homeless people with a couple strangers has the makings of a fine slasher flick, and I’m sure if I was living in such a dank swale, I wouldn’t take kindly to people tromping through in the middle of the night beaming flashlights into my living room. That could only exacerbate what’s bound to be a sticky encounter: “Excuse me, sir, we’re out counting homeless people. Do you mind if we interview you?”

Fortunately, if that’s the right word, we didn’t find a single person. We did find three tents clustered together on the creek embankment, but whoever was living there was either asleep or smart enough not to poke their heads out and draw more attention. We also found plenty of abandoned beer bottles, blankets, a mattress and other kinds of detritus indicating that the site was indeed an occasional camp. Trash bags that had obviously been rummaged through drew a litter of feral cats, but there were no other signs of life.

When my team returned to headquarters at the end of the night, I learned that other groups had been much more successful (again, if successful is the right word to describe finding lots of homeless people). Teams combing areas closer to the heart of the city, particularly downtown and along Richards Boulevard, tallied as many as 40 homeless people in less than a square mile. I heard stories of men wrapped around concrete cylinders keeping warm by the steam exhaust expelled from the city’s loins, bands of strangers wedged behind narrow planter boxes hidden from view, and makeshift tent cities flanking the river’s edge of the mighty American.

In the end, the number of people scattered across the county was but a fraction of the total homeless population on any given night. Last year, more than 1,400 were in emergency or transitional shelters on the night of the count, and that number could be higher this year with the increased rainfall in January. Yet the concern is greater for those who can’t, or won’t, find shelter.

Tim Brown, former director of Loaves & Fishes, said the homeless out on a night like that of the count are those unlikely to seek shelter at all. Most suffer from mental illness or substance abuse that make it difficult for them to be confined to a crowded shelter. Besides, most have already moved through the shelters and found little refuge.

For the most at-risk, the only proven solution has been to put those individuals directly into supportive housing, though that approach is not without its critics. Many have been skeptical about putting people into housing without first stabilizing their disabilities with detox programs or mental-health support services. Mounting evidence, however, suggests that a “housing first” philosophy is the only way to go. Programs across the country sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have shown promising results and, in a strict cost-benefit analysis, are likely to cost taxpayers less in the long run.

The chronically homeless require extensive resources. By putting them directly into housing, it is easier to provide and maintain psychiatric or substance-abuse treatment and medical care and keep them out of jail.

Brown, who is on the leadership committee for the 10-year plan, says the county is making progress in providing that essential housing. One hundred units have already been created, and another 200 are expected to be ready by the end of the year. He hopes they can move quickly, as the newly established central-intake office already has a long list of people waiting to get in.

Eradicating chronic homelessness is not an unreasonable goal, Brown says, and that’s not blind optimism either. He’s been a social worker since the late ’70s and remembers a time, prior to Reagan’s budget cuts, when there weren’t so many people on the streets. “I know it can be done,” he said. “It’s a matter of public will and political will.”

The designers of Sacramento’s 10-year plan have also formed a broad coalition of government agents, social workers, health-care professionals and business owners. Brown said having the business community involved has been a big change that just might make the difference. “They’ve seen that you can’t enforce this problem away, all you do is move people around,” he said.

As it turns out, getting people off the streets means getting them into housing, not just out of sight.