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Sacramento Fire Department tapped to lead city-county homeless response

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg announced Wednesday the Fire Department will coordinate the city and county's joint response to homelessness

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Sacramento’s Fire Department is now the agency coordinating the city and county’s joint response to the homeless crisis.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg made that announcement Wednesday at a State of the City event.

“The city’s new emergency response to homelessness will be lead and directed by our fire department. Why? Fire is already most often the first responder to crises and health-related emergencies,” he said.

The Sacramento Fire Department will work with law enforcement, city and county outreach teams and service providers like WellSpace Health and Hope Cooperative to get unhoused individuals off the streets and into services.

Steinberg is calling this new response structure an all-hands-on-deck approach, inspired by the city’s response to the severe storms starting last New Year’s Eve. Responding to the homeless crisis should be as coordinated and effective as the response to severe storms and other disasters, he said.

“This new rapid response to both help people off the streets and make our streets cleaner and safer can only succeed if we commit to the same kind of coordinated emergency response that is standard for every other kind of emergency,” he said. “We can help [people experiencing homelessness] and have a cleaner and safer city, and that’s what we’re going to do together.”

Steinberg joined the leaders of this coordinated effort in a panel discussion that included Sacramento Fire Chief Chris Costamagna, Police Chief Kathy Lester, Assistant City Manager Mario Lara, WellSpace Health CEO Dr. Jonathan Porteus and Hope Cooperative CEO Erin Johansen.

They said they hope this new coordinated system can be an alternative to 911, when appropriate, to help people who are having a mental health crisis get connected to mental and behavioral health services and substance abuse treatment. This would be in place of jail or the emergency room, unless a serious crime was committed or somebody is injured, respectively.

Leaders told the crowd they believe these changes will make a noticeable difference to the public within a year, in terms of nuisances and crime linked to homeless encampments.

The announcement happened at 6780 Stockton Boulevard in Sacramento. If you’ve driven past, it has likely looked like an abandoned, vacant building for the better part of two decades. This campus — once planned as a shopping center but long dormant — is where WellSpace Health will come in and transform the 13-acre site into a wellness campus.

Plans include a Crisis Receiving for Behavioral Health Center (CRBH) for those experiencing mental health and/or substance abuse issues.

WellSpace CEO Dr. Jonathan Porteus said he hopes it can open next year. 

“The idea of our wellness campus is really to focus on recovery; moving people back into the mainstream; focusing on health, mental health and substance use disorders,” said Porteus.

He says WellSpace serves some 140,000 people per year across more than 30 locations in Sacramento, Placer and Amador counties.

The nonprofit already operates a CRBH Center downtown like the one it plans on opening at 6780 Stockton Boulevard and says the results are meaningful.

“What we’ve found is that maybe 4% of those persons actually end up going to a hospital, whereas before the only place that a peace officer could take someone was the hospital or the jail,” he said. “Our outcomes are just much more successful than trying to bring someone to a hospital.”

Some people attending Thursday’s event say they’ll believe the results of the city’s new approach to homelessness when they see it.

“The fancy talk and the fancy words and the big paperwork and they spend six months doing—it’s got to be implemented, and that’s going to take effort and that’s going to take resources and that’s going to take the political will in terms of wanting it done,” said Greg Wilson.

He and his wife LaWanda Lee rent eight homes they sublet to people transitioning out of homelessness, through a company called We’re At Your Service (W.A.Y.S.) Rooms for Rent. They shared security video with ABC10 from the front yard of one of their homes, showing a recent incident where they had to call 911 after a resident started causing damage and hurting herself. 

The video shows first responders with the Sacramento fire and police departments standing at the end of the driveway while the woman in crisis sits on the ground yelling at them. She eventually gets up and returns to the object with which she tried hurting herself, Wilson said, and the first responders did step in to intervene. But Wilson and Lee say they think they should have acted sooner.

“They just took her to the hospital. So they did the evaluation and they figured she was fine, so they released her back,” said Lee.

They say they believe Sacramento’s fire and police departments need to step up their game when it comes to responding to a mental health crisis. And on a more systemic level, they say, there should be a place for people like this woman to get mental health services that don’t include jail or the hospital.

Mayor Steinberg’s announcement Wednesday came in a non-traditional State of the City speech. He has decided to deliver his annual update in the form of three panel discussions held this week. Monday's speech focused on bringing more live music and performances to the city. Friday's will focus on affordable housing. 

This announcement is the latest in a recent deluge of news about the city’s and county’s response to the homeless crisis.

Earlier this month, the Sacramento County District Attorney threatened legal action against the city and its leaders if they don’t make meaningful changes in 30 days.

And just a week before that, city councilmembers voted to give more authority to City Manager Howard Chan to launch more safe ground camping sites for the unhoused as quickly as possible.

Steinberg said Wednesday Chan “will begin delivering those sites soon.”

WATCH MORE: Sacramento mayor proposes changes to encourage more live music in city


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