The $20 million plan

Homeless advocates who have long requested designation fear being left out of planning process now that money is involved

The region’s top homeless advocates and providers gave hurried comments on how millions in homeless service dollars should be spent. Soon, the public will get their chance to do so, too.

The region’s top homeless advocates and providers gave hurried comments on how millions in homeless service dollars should be spent. Soon, the public will get their chance to do so, too.

Photo by Michael Mott

Raheem F. Hosseini contributed to this report.

After years of rebuffing calls to do so, Sacramento leaders are likely on the verge of declaring a shelter crisis to secure millions in onetime homeless aid—and irking some advocates after an initial planning meeting made little mention of emergency shelter.

The first inkling that the process for figuring out what to do with some $19.9 million in emergency funds wouldn’t go smoothly was during a hastily scheduled meeting at Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services on August 23. A week before the meeting, Sacramento Steps Forward emailed regular attendees of its continuum of care advisory board meetings, where the region’s cohort of homeless service providers gather to provide policy recommendations to the private nonprofit.

Seats quickly filled. Then a potential spending proposal was sketched out, leaving some grassroots organizers concerned that city and county officials were seeking to earmark the mini-windfall without much input from, you know, actual homeless people.

“There weren’t a lot of people there who experienced homelessness,” Kimberly Church, who runs Sacramento Safe Space for Unhomed Youth, said after the meeting. “It was a bit strange given that the city sees advocates and people without homes at City Council every Tuesday.”

The disagreement dates back years, which is how long people experiencing homelessness and those who work with them have been calling upon officials to declare a shelter crisis, which would allow local governments to ease zoning regulations to quickly turn public buildings into emergency shelters.

Such a prospect was a non-starter for local politicians until state lawmakers sent Senate Bill 850 to the governor’s desk. Signed in June, the legislation freed up an extra $500 million for area governments to address homelessness. The catch? Any municipality that wants a share must declare a shelter crisis. Under the legislation, funding is for “one-time uses that address homelessness, including, but not limited to, prevention, criminal justice diversion programs to homeless individuals with mental health needs, and emergency aid.”

Steps Forward is the lead applicant for the funding, but there are many cooks in this kitchen. The three-way partnership involves the city, the county and the continuum, with its 22-member advisory board.

The lion’s share of the aid—$14.3 million—would go to the continuum, with the city receiving $5.6 million. Halcon suggested the city’s portion would go to adding an unspecified number of beds at its existing triage shelter in North Sacramento, which currently has room for 200.

Cindy Cavanaugh, Sacramento County’s director of homeless initiatives, spoke of using the rest of the funds to streamline the region’s disparate services, provide financial assistance to those at risk of becoming homeless and “cultivate landlords”—with little mention of shelter.

As part of that proposal, Tiffanie Synnott, of the Sacramento County public defender’s office, outlined a diversion program to keep nonviolent homeless defendants out of jail or a “jury trial that costs $10,000 a day.”

A draft proposal will be published and go to the advisory board on September 12, then to city and county leaders on September 25. The application is due December 31.

“We have to implement this really, really quickly,” Halcon said. “We could draw funds as early as this fall and have to expend it by June 2021. … That’s why it’s important we rely on existing administrative infrastructure.”

Not everyone was sold on the idea of spending new money on old systems.

Niki Jones, an advocate with Sacramento Youth Council, pushed stakeholders to do more than “what they’ve always done.”

“I know this is a fast process, and I know people are here because there’s a lot of money to be spent. Some are here because there’s an actual shelter crisis,” she said at the meeting. “Why can’t they open shelters? Why not let people open tents? … Think about what power you have and understand it’s a crisis.”

Alyson Collier, a homeless liaison for the Sacramento County Office of Education, noted that 5 percent of the funds are mandated for youth, “yet we don’t have youth-specific objectives. That needs to be added.”

Rivkah Sass, director of the Sacramento Public Library system, one of the few respites for people living on the streets, cited the overall lack of resources.

“We have a navigator; he’s wonderful. But he needs something to navigate to,” she said, citing the lack of housing—emergency, permanent or otherwise.

There’s also the age-old debate about who the money should be targeted toward: the chronically homeless who are the hardest to treat and most visible on the streets of Sacramento—and thus, the highest priority for businesses—or the larger number of families and young people who try to stay invisible out of shame or fear, and who may be easier to stabilize. Bob Erlenbusch put his vote in for the latter.

“We have 2,500 people outside with no fault of their own who are homeless because of no shelter beds. We should really target who’s underserved: Women, seniors and youth,” said Ehrlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, which released a report last week showing homeless deaths spiked 75 percent in 2017. “We now lose one homeless person every six days at an average age of 50 for men and 45 for women. Forty-five.”

Church said all of this might not be necessary if local leaders sought their input seven years ago, when civil rights attorney Mark Merin asked City Hall to declare a shelter crisis. Some other things might be different, too, she added.

“They wouldn’t need court diversion if we didn’t criminalize them for being outside,” she told SN&R.