Homeless in Sacramento

Good article from the Sacramento Bee about our local situation and those trying to help.

An excerpt.

It’s Ryan Loofbourrow’s job to get homeless people off Sacramento’s streets. That means his job is harder than yours. No one thinks he’ll ever fully succeed. The problem will outlast him. Everyone has an opinion, but no one has a solution – just a political agenda.

Loofbourrow is trying to do his job – running Sacramento Steps Forward, the lead agency on homeless services in the county – without becoming mired in politics. In Sacramento, that’s like trying to walk the streets without letting your feet touch the ground. It’s impossible.

For example, the city, led by Councilman Jay Schenirer, is poised to veer away from Loofbourrow’s mission to house homeless people in real housing, and allow some to live in a legalized tent city.

Loofbourrow recently traveled to Seattle to study its city-sanctioned homeless camps with Schenirer and a delegation of city leaders. He said he did not find a useful strategy for helping the homeless among the tent cities. As The Bee’s Ryan Lillis reported, the Seattle camps are designed to transition homeless people into housing, although it’s unclear how effective they’ve been so far.

Instead of debating publicly with those who want to sanction tent cities and defer the hard work of housing people, Loofbourrow has remained a quiet but authoritative voice in the background. It’s not that the executive director is afraid to speak his mind. It’s just that it’s his goal to get Sacramento, the county and surrounding cities behind the idea of more housing for all. He has to be the resource, not the lightning rod.

Many people support the idea of a homeless camp because it’s likely it will never be in their neighborhood. They can rationalize the idea of letting people sleep in deplorable conditions as a way of doing “something,” even though the idea has no track record of success.

Loofbourrow said he understands why Sacramento officials are panicking and eyeing the idea of a homeless camp. “They have the reality of what they are responding to today,” he said. Officials are increasingly hearing community concerns about homeless people living by the river and in places such as Land Park, where residents were unaccustomed to seeing them. There also has been the sustained protest at City Hall.

Tent camps like the ones in Seattle – self-governed communities where drugs and alcohol are prohibited – are not a good strategy for Sacramento, Loofbourrow said, because the people who would inhabit them could be placed in real housing instead. If you are capable of remaining clean and sober and following rules, Sacramento has the ability to get you rent assistance for a market-rate apartment, he said.

It’s true that Sacramento has a shortage of housing for some homeless people. There isn’t enough permanent supportive housing for those dealing with the challenges of mental illness, addiction or both. Permanent supportive housing requires case workers to closely monitor the most vulnerable of Sacramento’s homeless population. It’s a program that can last as long as two years before a person is ready to live independently. Subsidized by the federal government, homeless people in permanent supportive housing contribute 30 percent of their incomes to rent. The feds pay the rest and homeless people who qualify can remain in the program indefinitely if they choose.

Loufbourrow said there are between 2,600 and 2,800 beds available to single people and some families in the permanent supportive housing program. That’s not enough to meet demand.

Michele Watts, chief operating officer of SSF, said a shortage of permanent supportive housing will result in approximately 2,000 homeless people waiting for shelter by year’s end. But for homeless people who don’t need as much institutional support, there is more hope. SSF has a program called rapid rehousing, in which case managers contracted by SSF offer rent subsidies to homeless people and help with any concerns from apartment landlords.

The rapid rehousing program is roughly a year old and also is utilized by Sacramento County and the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency. Both agencies partner with SSF.

Much of the work done by SSF in rapid rehousing is persuading landlords to relax their requirements to allow homeless people to move into market-rate apartments – despite histories of bad credit and past evictions. There are nearly 500 housing-subsidy spots available in the SSF system, Watts said.

“It might take several weeks (for placement by SSF), but you would be in an apartment,” she said.

SSF’s capacity to help higher-functioning homeless people raises an important question for Sacramento officials weighing a tent city. If SSF has approximately 500 spots available for rent subsidies, why not put these homeless people into apartments rather than a tent city?

“With the dollars we have, we have the capacity,” Loofbourrow said. “We contract with Volunteers of America, and we would get them placed in interim housing before transitioning them into apartments.”

Still, a tent city plan is gaining momentum. Mark Merin, a lawyer representing advocates for a tent city, said in a March 3 letter to Sacramento City Manager John Shirey that his clients could have a tent city ready to go in April.

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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