Homeless in Sacramento - Renee C. Byer, photographer

Sacramento Bee, July 10, 2017

BY THE EDITORIAL BOARD. Featured photograph by Renee C. Byer

Every night, more than 3,600 people are homeless in Sacramento County, a heartbreaking statistic that’s 30 percent higher than it was in 2015.

The results of a federally mandated headcount of homeless people are as dispiriting as expected.

Hundreds of men and women, many of them old and mentally ill, roam the downtown streets, parks, and, yes, suburbs of this capital city, deprived of permanent shelter. And despite the millions of dollars spent getting people into housing, more than half sleep outside – a stunning 85 percent increase in just two years.

“This is not just a sobering report,” Mayor Darrell Steinberg shouted into a bank of microphones on Monday. “This is a damning report!”

He’s right to be angry.

Even outside of downtown, it has become increasingly clear that homelessness is on the rise in Sacramento. But year after year, the city and county – mostly the county – have failed to implement a joint plan of action. The current arrangement, in which city and county staff talk past each other about parallel and in some cases redundant solutions, is not collaboration.

Without a redoubled, coordinated, concentrated effort to add shelters, build affordable housing, and ramp up mental health and addiction services, the number of homeless population will soon be even more “damning.”

The federally mandated Point In Time count is a snapshot, but in county after county, it shows homelessness growing not just in Sacramento, but across California.

Los Angeles County has the population of a small city living on its streets, with homelessness rising 23 percent to 57,794 people – so many that voters there raised their sales tax to fund homeless programs. Orange, Alameda and Butte counties also reported increases.

As a whole, the Golden State has the highest rate of homelessness in the country. But that doesn’t excuse Sacramento’s long inability to consolidate resources and agree on a unified strategy to address this glaring problem.

Hiring park rangers to move homeless people off the American River Parkway, as Supervisor Phil Serna has suggested, may seem bold. But what good is rousting campers when shelters and mental health facilities are too crowded to help?

Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature also share blame – starting with their failure to enact meaningful legislation to ease the housing crisis.

Last month, they approved a budget with no new money for affordable housing, despite dozens of bills being introduced to do just that. Without a sufficient stock of affordable housing and jobs with salaries that keep up with skyrocketing rents, getting people off the streets is often an exercise in futility.

Already, stories abound of Sacramentans being forced out of their homes and onto the streets because they can’t afford rent – now a median $1,200 a month.

Homeless people with children seem to have better luck. The Point In Time count found most in Sacramento to be in shelters or transitional housing, and the number of homeless families with kids had mercifully dropped by 25 percent.

But what of the lone adults, such as Edwin Lopez, who, as The Bee’s Marcos Breton reported, struggled out of homelessness to become a California Highway Patrol officer? And what of the oldest of Sacramento’s homeless population, the male military veterans camped on the parkway? Many suffer from PTSD made worse by their chaotic living conditions.

Many in Sacramento look down our noses at San Francisco for a letting homelessness fester on its otherwise beautiful streets. But you know what they say about stones and glass houses.

“This report is a call to action,” Steinberg said. “No excuses. No boundaries. The only thing that matters is we dramatically reduce these numbers.”

Heads should roll if we can’t improve on this situation before the next Point In Time count.

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