We have been advocating this approach to the chronic homeless issue for over ten years, noting the success of Pathways to Housing—one of the initial advocates of Housing First—in our first research report (p. 30), and, hopefully, Sacramento is finally going to get serious about implementing it, according to this story from Sacramento News & Review.
On a Saturday afternoon this past January, Michael Lehmkuhl was killed for being where he wasn’t supposed to be.
When you’re homeless, as the 58-year-old man was at the time of his death, there are many places like that. Online court records show that Lehmkuhl already spent 72 days in jail last year for entering a dwelling without permission and was facing an unresolved loitering charge when a bullet found him on January 9.
On that day, Lehmkuhl was a good ways south of a tree-lined embankment along the American River, where those in his situation more easily fade from view. In a parking lot off Bercut Drive in North Sacramento, near a cottage suite of offices headquartering a construction company and a task force devoted to solving sex crimes, police say that Lehmkuhl encountered an armed security guard conducting a routine patrol of the River District.
To the guard, Lehmkuhl looked “suspicious,” police said in a media release at the time, and initiated contact. Lehmkuhl responded by becoming “aggressive,” the same release stated. Lehmkuhl took up a tree branch and swung. The guard pulled a gun and fired. When paramedics arrived a short time later, Lehmkuhl had expired.
Just another homeless death in Sacramento County.
There were upwards of 80 of them by the end of the last two Decembers—and the victims are getting younger, advocates say.
“In 2015, the average age for [homeless] women at their death was 47 years old, and for men it was 49,” said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, which collects homeless mortality data from the coroner’s office and other sources. “I think the deaths are increasing just because the homeless population has increased.”
On December 19 at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, religious leaders, elected representatives and homeless residents and advocates will gather for a third straight year to memorialize the men and women who died during 2016 the way that they lived—on the streets. By the time this interfaith service begins on Monday evening, called to order by Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg and Supervisor Patrick Kennedy, organizers will have at least 79 names to read—names that tell the story of an old public health crisis gathering cobwebs.
Every year around this time, elected officials reopen their winter shelters for a few months and make compassion-lite promises to uplift their most impoverished constituents. And every year, more people fall to the margins, and perish in quiet, anonymous fashion….
Between 5 and 6 percent of homeless deaths in Sacramento County are the result of homicide, SRCEH found. According to its analysis, the homicide rate is 31 percent higher for people without homes than those who reside indoors. Suicides and substance-use deaths are also high, exposing a lack of access to medical and psychiatric services. On average, less than 30 percent of homeless deaths result from natural causes.
Over the years, the dead have been found in a starburst pattern around the central city and in ligature streaks tracked out along the interstate lines. The deaths happen at all times of the year, divided into near-equal quarter-sized chunks through the four seasons. The idea that the homeless population faces a greater threat in the winter—at least in terms of fatalities—is a myth.
“It doesn’t make any difference,” Erlenbusch said. “Winter, spring, summer or fall, 25 percent of [homeless] deaths are in each of the four seasons. Even though intuitively most people think [mortality rates would be higher in winter] because of the harsher weather … that’s not true.”…
The annual death count has revealed the folly of the political response, which is and has been to fixate on winter shelters rather than a year-round strategy, some advocates say.
“The county has not increased [shelter operating days],” Erlenbusch said. “They do the winter shelter program, which is great and that adds another 150 beds to the system from November to March 31. Then on April Fools’ Day … we lose 23 percent of our bed capacity in 24 hours. The county could move a lot quicker to create what they’ve been calling a triage center, along the lines of San Francisco, but they haven’t moved to create that yet.”
On November 1, true to form, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors reauthorized two such programs. First, supervisors boosted their share of a winter sanctuary program 28 percent to $360,000, to add beds and help with transportation to and from shelter locations. The sanctuary program, administered by Sacramento Steps Forward, provides overnight lodging and meals at 30 religious sites between November 21 and April 30. Supervisors augmented that by 25 beds per night, by adding an extra $75,000 on a winter shelter program in North Highlands through March 31.
The conjoined programs have been staples of the county’s approach to homelessness the past five years. While the winter-focused efforts can get some out of the cold, they’re falling short of one devastating mark—reducing homeless deaths throughout the whole year.
Erlenbusch is concerned about the mounting number of names he’s collected the last two Decembers, reflecting a trend in which homeless deaths in Sacramento County skyrocketed 68 percent in 12 years—from 29 in 2002 to 91 in 2014. The 79 deaths recorded through December 8 this year are the second most since SRCEH began tracking this data, and one more than in 2015.
Even by the superficial accounting standards of the federal government, which requires local jurisdictions to count their homeless residents on one wintry night every other year, homelessness ticked an almost 5 percent increase between 2013 and 2015, to nearly 2,700. Another 5,200 are estimated to experience homelessness during the course of the year.
But such counts don’t account for homeless individuals or families who go unseen by volunteer monitors, including those sleeping on friends’ couches, in parked cars or otherwise hidden locations.
“What we currently have is an oversaturated system,” Burke said. “There is no way they can serve everyone who is seeking shelter, even with this additional hundred beds that are wintertime-only beds. Ideally, we would have a true crisis response system where someone seeking shelter would be provided shelter that night—no waiting list involved.”
When asked if he thought the county was doing enough to respond, Erlenbusch was not shy in his critique. “About 60 percent of the deaths of homeless people are on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, so we were pushing for the last couple years for a weekend shelter … but they haven’t done that,” Erlenbusch said.
Local officials are finally acknowledging their shortfalls, at least vocally.