SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The homeless crisis in Sacramento is impacting more people today than it has in recent history.
According to the most recent Point-In-Time count conducted throughout Sacramento County, more than 5,500 people are experiencing homelessness on a given night. That is an increase of nearly 20% from 2017 and just over 2,650 people in 2015. The count, which is conducted every two years, was last taken over two nights in January 2019.
Diane Woods and her family are currently homeless and feel there is not enough being done to help for the unhoused community in Sacramento. Woods and her three children either sleep in their van or receive vouchers to stay in motels.
“There's just not really any help out there,” Woods said.
Two of her children, Kara and Caley, can’t attend school virtually "because we were homeless, we couldn’t charge our laptops or their hotspot device, so they were enrolled, but couldn’t go."
Her kids attend Mustard Seed School in Sacramento, a program provided by Loaves & Fishes that's considered a temporary and private school for students as their families work to get stable and permanent living situations figured out. The school provides a place for the kids while their parents are using other services on the Loaves & Fishes campus. Some of those services include breakfast and lunch, mental health services, housing information, and showers. They also provide school supplies, and other things students may need during the day.
In order to open for in-person learning, the school has to follow strict COVID-19 restrictions, including limiting the number of students who can attend. Currently, the program has 19 students enrolled. While Loaves & Fishes may be seeing more families in need, they can only take in a total of 24 students due to the pandemic.
“I have been at Mustard Seed now 13 years and the numbers (students) have gone up over time,” Casey Knittel, director at Mustard Seed School, said. “We're seeing a lot more families that are living in cars, a lot more families living in tents, a lot more families on the street probably over the last five years.”
Knittel said when she first got to Mustard Seed, there were about 150 students total throughout the year. Recently, however, and before COVID-19 hit, they would have over 300 students.
ABC10 requested the number of 311 complaints and inquiries for homeless camps from 2015 to 2020 in the city of Sacramento. In 2015, there were about 500 complaints. In 2020, there were more than 4,600 complaints, ranging from businesses owners to residents, just between April through December.
The complaints are forwarded over to the appropriate departments, such as the police department, parks and recreation, or code enforcement. ABC10 asked Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg about the information we uncovered in regards to the 311 complaints.
“A tale of two stories, frankly, over my first four years, we have gotten thousands of people off the streets, I have raised between state and federal and local funding over a hundred million dollars for the city of Sacramento. However, the problem continues to grow,” Steinberg said.
The funds the mayor is referencing are from when he secured $64 million for a Whole Person Care Pilot, called Pathways, for outreach and case management. Outreach teams connect with homeless people and enroll them in the program where they are matched with a health care provider, housing, and other services. As of October 2020, it has served more than 2,000 people and placed 857 clients in permanent or transitional housing.
Steinberg has also lobbied as head of California Big City Mayors for state funds for emergency solutions for homelessness for California cities and counties. The city of Sacramento directly received $5.6 million and Sacramento Steps Forward received $12.7 million for the city and county. He also allocated $4.7 million in federal stimulus money for rental assistance for families at risk of becoming homeless during the pandemic. Another $15.3 million from the second federal stimulus bill is being added to that amount.
In 2017, former councilmember Allen Warren announced the tiny home community off Rio Linda Boulevard, but it never happened since the property owner, Calvary Christian Center, decided to move forward with other plans for the site.
In 2018, Steinberg asked each city council member to find a site or sites in their district to be used to shelter 100 homeless people. One possible site discussed at that time was Cal Expo. The proposed shelter was described as a “sprung shelter,” a heavy-duty industrial tent used for events, but stronger. Steinberg says that plan has changed and is still being discussed and modified today into a master plan.
“Start with the public policy that says that everything that government at any level does in this area is optional and voluntary,” Steinberg said. “There's no requirement.”
Not only is there no requirement, but there is also a lot of people involved.
When proposed shelter sites were discussed several years ago in the South Sacramento area, residents voiced their opposition, saying they were worried about possible crime and the shelter's close proximity to schools. One of the sites was at a Florin Road light rail station to house up to 100 hand-selected homeless people.
In addition, city councilmembers say there’s no blanket approach to homelessness. It’s one of the reasons why Steinberg’s request several years ago has been changed, based on input from councilmembers. Needs vary from district to district.
“There's a moment where the rubber meets the road and they need a check, right? They need actual dollars in the bank,” Angelique Ashby, Sacramento Mayor Pro Tem, said. “They've got to pay a contract. They've got to put a building up. And a lot of times that piece takes a long time. Whether funding is coming from the state or being moved around in the city or a collaboration with the county or whatever it is, I think that component people take for granted how long that piece can take.”
Ashby believes there needs to be more help for homeless families and has been working to find the best solutions for her district in Natomas. She proposed a solution that is targeted at families, and not just women and children, but for anyone with children. It’s a scattered-site model, putting everyone in houses throughout her district in 100 units.
Ashby says it stems from a master lease through the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency with multiple landlords. The scattered-site model could be homes or apartments, however, she says finding vacant and empty apartments is a challenge in a city facing a housing crisis.
When it comes to the homeless issue as a whole, it’s not just a Sacramento issue but a statewide problem. An audit released this year says the state’s approach has been uncoordinated. No single state entity in California oversees efforts to address homelessness or is responsible for developing a statewide strategic plan. Instead, at least nine state agencies administer and oversee 41 different programs that provide funding related to homelessness.
ABC10 reached out to the governor’s office about the audit and the deputy secretary of communications with the Business, Consumer Services, and Housing Agency replied back. That agency oversees the Homeless Coordinating and Financing Council. The agency says the state could be doing more to coordinate the response to homelessness in California, but it can’t take actions because it does not have the authority or resources to do so. Legislation would be required.
Steinberg says he’s trying to improve accountability and urgency involving homelessness on the state level. He was appointed by Gov. Newsom to lead the Statewide Commission on Homelessness and Supportive Housing. He also worked with Assemblymember David Chiu as co-chair of Governor’s Council of Regional Homeless Advisors. As an advisor, he was able to get approval from commissioners to support a legally enforceable mandate on all levels of government to address homeless. It was incorporated into AB 3269. However, the bill died in the senate.
Despite the growing numbers, Sacramento has made strides in addressing homelessness and affordable housing. The Meadowview Navigation Center shelter for women opened in October 2020 and currently has 100 beds.
The city opened a 200-bed Triage Shelter on Railroad Drive, which was the city’s first low-barrier shelter offering people to come with their pets, partners, and possessions. It was open for 16 months and out of 658 people it served, more than 264 people were placed in longer-term housing.
The city also opened a 180-bed shelter at the Capitol Park Hotel in downtown Sacramento, 40 scattered-site housing units for experiencing homelessness, the Grove cabin community for transition-age youth in North Sacramento and in partnership with Sacramento County launched Project Roomkey which has housed more than 1,000 people in motel rooms and trailers.
Construction is also underway for a shelter along the W/X freeway at Alhambra and Broadway.
There’s also an urgency with new city councilmembers like Katie Valenzuela. She was vocal on the city’s response to homelessness during her campaign for city council.
With that sense of urgency, all the city councilmembers are working on a master plan like a roadmap to address homelessness with discussions starting at the beginning of this year. Each district has been asked to champion a type of model or to bring forward an approach that allows them to help at least 100 people off the streets. This summer, they’ll identify every site that is needed for shelter, tiny homes, safe camping, and permanent housing to move forward. From there, they will build a strategy on what resources each model would need such as bathrooms, food and services, and case managers.
“I think we’ve given each councilmember a sense of ownership at least that’s how I know I feel over finding solutions that work in our district and help alleviate the crisis we’re gonna figure it out but several of us are brand new to this and we believe we’re gonna make a plan that’s going to figure this out,” Valenzuela said.
However, a lot of Sacramento's most vulnerable can’t wait.
Woods says she’s struggling. Her disability benefits aren’t enough to cover an apartment. She’s searching for options to find a more permanent solution.
“It gets stressful, but, like, I look forward to like the end of the day because I could take the kids to the park and relax and not really have to deal with it, like, it makes us closer as a family,” Woods said.
ABC10 reached out to the governor’s office for this story. The senior counselor to the governor, Jason Elliot, sent a statement saying they have made efforts to help the most vulnerable when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which includes Project Roomkey and Homekey. Elliot added that “as we see the light at the end of the COVID tunnel” they are now rededicating their agenda to partner with the Legislature to provide treatment and housing for people with serious behavioral health challenges, identifying funding for permanent housing, and affordable housing.
Currently, there is no updated number of how many people are homeless in Sacramento in 2021 as the Sacramento city and county Continuum of Care opted out due to COVID-19. Officials believed it would be unsafe and infeasible for hundreds of volunteers to be congregating and interacting to do their count.
Even though there is no count for 2021, the Continuum of Care Board is partnering with the Institute for Social Research to use data and other sampling methods to estimate the number of unsheltered people experiencing homelessness. They’re hoping this will provide a better understanding of the unsheltered population and identify ways to more efficiently obtain year-round data and know who is connected to homeless resources in the community.