SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The Sacramento Fire Department is now officially in charge of the city’s homelessness response.
Assistant Fire Chief Brian Pedro is leading the newly established Incident Management Team, which follows the same emergency response structure used in disaster situations like wildfires and severe storms.
Announcing the change at a State of the City event Wednesday, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg called the new approach an ‘all hands on deck’ response to the homeless crisis. Pedro is tasked with bringing together various departments, agencies and outside providers, including the Sacramento Police Department, the city’s 311 Customer Service, city and county outreach teams, Hope Cooperative and WellSpace Health.
"We can help [people experiencing homelessness] and have a cleaner and safer city, and that's what we're going to do together,” said Steinberg.
But how, exactly, does Pedro and the Sacramento Fire Department plan on implementing this?
"We're having conversations of, 'Yes, [a call is] going to come through 911, but is it going to be dispatched as a 911 call?' Maybe it goes through [the] Department of Community Response and maybe they go out in place of us,” said Capt. Justin Sylvia, spokesperson for the Sacramento Fire Department.
He said members of the new Incident Management Team will decide how to best respond to 911 and 311 calls, depending on the situation.
"We can go on scene of a call for a medical aid, and if that person doesn't necessarily need to go to the hospital in an ambulance, maybe they need a medication refilled, we can use an iPad, call a doctor in real-time, have that doctor send over a prescription or give us orders on-scene for us to treat and release on scene, and we can move on to the next call,” said Sylvia.
There's a lot of hope that making these changes will reduce the number of non-emergency 911 calls and connect unhoused folks with services, like the ones WellSpace Health will soon be providing at a 13-acre campus it’s developing along Stockton Boulevard, which was the site of the mayor's announcement on Wednesday.
This comes as the Sacramento Fire Department’s call volume has increased nearly 50% in the past decade. That’s according to Ryan Henry, vice president of Sacramento Area Fire Fighters Local 522, the union representing firefighters. Both he and Sylvia said that increase is due in large part to the growing unhoused population.
“I’m in full support of having the Fire Department run the incident management team,” said Henry. “It makes total sense, as we are really well-versed in managing large-scale incidents with cooperating agencies, such as wildfires, for example.”
Sylvia says the fire department will still be responding to all calls for service — this doesn't change that — but now, for example, EMTs have to take someone having a mental health crisis to the emergency room and often wait hours before that person sees a doctor. Soon, they'll be able to take that person right to a mental health crisis center operated by WellSpace.
"I think the general public is going to see movement on this soon...to help these people get off the streets, whether that be drug treatment plans, any type of substance abuse plan or just mental health services, we can start getting them out,” said Sylvia.
How soon? Sylvia didn’t have answer for that, as Asst. Chief Pedro is still putting his team together. But WellSpace Health CEO Dr. Jonathan Porteus told ABC10 he hopes to open that crisis center next spring. City leaders speaking at Wednesday’s event said they believe people will see a noticeable difference in nuisances linked to homeless encampments within a year.
Those attending the mayor's event included Keith Blow, who was living on the streets just four years ago.
LaWanda Lee and her husband Greg Wilson 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. Blow is a resident there and said it has provided him a stable place to live.
"Keith has done a big transition. He also was very heavier. So he has lost over 200 pounds,” said Lee.
She, Blow and Wilson say they've seen the transformative power of treatment and stable housing
"It helped me walk each day confidently,” said Blow.
They would like to see that for the more than 5,000 unhoused individuals living within Sacramento city limits.