Sacramento Bee photographers found a few people willing to tell us why they are homeless. Video by Hector Amezcua, Randall Benton and Jose Villegas. Produced by Sue Morrow
Sacramento Bee photographers found a few people willing to tell us why they are homeless. Video by Hector Amezcua, Randall Benton and Jose Villegas. Produced by Sue Morrow

Local

Sacramento sees a startling surge in homeless people. Who they are might surprise you

By Anita Chabria, Cynthia Hubert, Ryan Lillis and Ellen Garrison

achabria@sacbee.com

July 10, 2017 09:00 AM

UPDATED October 17, 2017 02:00 PM

Shawn Porter woke up in William Land Park on Friday and smoked a Marlboro Red for breakfast not far from the zoo where he worked selling popcorn as a kid.

A few miles away, behind a south Sacramento dumpster, Steve Devlin used the morning light to search for a set of dice his displeased lady-friend chucked into the bushes at his street camp close to the mobile home park where his parents once lived.

Deja Sturdevan’s day began by pushing past prickly branches guarding her sleeping quarters in shrubbery near a heavily trafficked boulevard in Antelope, blocks from a house she said she lived in for 14 years with her ex-husband before divorce and drugs put her in the weeds.

“This is my neighborhood,” said Sturdevan, blond hair in a ponytail and nails painted with glittery polish. “I’m comfortable here.”

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This trio are among the 3,665 people living without permanent shelter in Sacramento County, according to a new count released Monday by Sacramento Steps Forward, the agency that coordinates local efforts to aid the homeless.

Homelessness rose by a startling 30 percent from 2,822 people the last time the transient population was counted in 2015, it said. It is the highest number of people living without permanent housing Sacramento has ever recorded.

About 2,000 of those counted by the survey are living outside, marking another first: More people are now living in the elements than in shelters or other emergency housing, the reverse of previous years.

The number of unsheltered homeless in the county skyrocketed by 85 percent in recent years, making up nearly half of the increase in overall numbers. About 800 of those are chronically homeless, meaning they have been homeless for more than a year or have had multiple bouts of homelessness in the past three years, and have a mental, physical or developmental disability that keeps them from working.

“This is not just a sobering report, this is a damning report,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg at a Monday press conference. “This report is a call to action, no excuses.”

Porter, Devlin and Sturdevan highlight a trend among the long-term homeless people who spend nights in the open: The majority are from here, often living in familiar areas where they grew up or have ties to the community. Sacramento Steps Forward has found 70 percent of people it comes in contact with say they are from the city where they are currently sleeping – whether it’s Sacramento, a surrounding suburb or the unincorporated part of the county.

“It’s important to own that these people on your street are your people,” said Ryan Loofbourrow, CEO of Sacramento Steps Forward. “It’s easier to think this is a tragedy that has come to us.”

Because more homeless people are staying close to their former homes, their numbers – and visibility – are growing outside of Sacramento’s urban core and the American River Parkway. More are in residential areas and suburbs that previously had few people living outdoors.

Rancho Cordova resident Karen Edwards volunteers in a homeless assistance program. She said she first realized people in her area needed help when her church congregation took part in the winter sanctuary program, a rotating network of faith centers that offers a place for homeless people to sleep in cold months. Those nightly guests are bused in from central sites, but Edwards said she was surprised to find that people closer to her home also were in need.

“We had local homeless knocking on the door, asking, ‘Can we come in?’ ” she said. “I think the thing that we’re learning the most, they’re not homeless migrating from other places ... The majority of the homeless in Rancho Cordova are from Rancho Cordova.”

Fatemah Bradley-Martinez, housing services supervisor for Sacramento Self-Help Housing, said, like Sturdevan, many homeless people value familiarity and social connections over the benefits of being closer to aid organizations and governmental offices in downtown Sacramento.

“They grew up in those cities; they don’t have a desire to relocate to the city (of Sacramento) just to receive services,” Bradley-Martinez said.

Volunteers counted 188 people living unsheltered in Citrus Heights, said the report. Rancho Cordova has 76 homeless people. Elk Grove had 18. Homeless clusters also were found in Folsom, north Natomas and south Sacramento, among other areas.

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Flooded camps

The numbers are taken from a single-night tally of homeless people counted by volunteers. The biennial count, required for federal funding, is meant to provide a point-in-time snapshot of life on the streets. Sacramento Steps Forward receives about $19 million in annual funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Loofbourrow said.

The one-night count is also used to estimate overall numbers of homeless people in the county for the entire year – higher numbers than the one-night count. The previous count estimated that 7,619 households would experience homelessness at some point during 2016 – 1,844 of them families with children.

The suburban sprawl of homelessness hasn’t lessened the concentration of people living along the rivers and downtown, where transient populations have long bedded down and where most homeless people remain. More than 60 percent of homeless people in the county were found in the city of Sacramento.

Volunteers who worked on the homeless count reported dense clusters of transients along the levees and Garden Highway. They counted 363 tents, three times as many as during the previous tally. That rise was likely due to people driven off the American River itself by heavy flooding over the winter, Loofbourrow said. The week before the count took place, flooding was extreme and people who likely were living deep in the wooded areas around the river were forced into more visible areas, adding numbers to the count, he said.

The migration from waterways hit Discovery Park and the area around Cal Expo the hardest, the report states.

Many of those who had been camping in the dense vegetation of the lower parkway were older military veterans living alone, Loofbourrow said, a finding consistent with the conclusion that veterans throughout the region aren’t faring well. The number of former military on the streets jumped by 50 percent to 469, an especially troubling figure since this population has been specifically targeted for help – though as a percentage of the homeless population their numbers remained stable.

The majority of these vets reported being chronically homeless, and 65 percent said they had post-traumatic stress disorder.

Families with children – another group targeted for aid – did better, with their numbers declining by 25 percent, though volunteers did find seven kids living with an unsheltered parent.

Homeless people also clustered in downtown and midtown, an ongoing point of tension as new, high-end housing and the revitalization sparked by Golden 1 Center increases pressure on the city to move homeless people out of the area.

Sacramento police were unable to say if transient-related nuisance calls have increased in recent years, referring the question to the Public Records Act process. But Councilman Steven Hansen said his downtown district has seen the effects of more homeless people.

On June 30, city crews cleared out 32,000 pounds of garbage and homeless people’s unattended belongings from under the elevated freeway between W and X streets, a common transient camping area, Hansen said.

One week later, nearly a dozen homeless campers were back under the concrete canopy. A 23-year-old woman who identified herself as Sabrina M., a former Del Taco manager, said she has been staying under the freeway for a year. Before that, she and a small crew of friends stayed in an abandoned building near 19th and X streets.

Sabrina, short and muscular with brown hair and tan skin, said the police force campers to move every day. But they don’t go far.

“We move a block down,” she said.

Regardless of where they are found, the report “confirms what we all have been seeing with our own eyes,” said Joan Burke of Loaves & Fishes, which provides meals and other services to hundreds of people every weekday near downtown Sacramento. “There is a very visible increase in the number of unsheltered homeless people.”

‘Trying to find a door’

Burke blamed the increase on a lack of affordable housing in the region, which the report also highlights. As home prices and rents rise, this shortage of housing is quickly becoming one of the most pressing problems throughout California. The Sacramento Steps Forward report noted that other cities in California have experienced similar recent spikes in homelessness.

Housing prices in the state for both rentals and purchases have long outpaced the rest of the nation and continue to rise, found a 2015 report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office. At the same time, California is not building enough new middle- and low-income housing to meet demand, and state funds for affordable housing have largely dried up.

The California Legislature is debating a potential package of housing bills to increase funding and ease development restrictions, including one that could raise up to $250 million a year for low-incoming housing development through a $75 fee on real estate transactions. That measure, Senate Bill 2, is moving forward but its fate is far from certain.

Housing costs are one of the strongest warning factors for homeless rates in communities. In places where a high percentage of residents spend more than 30 percent of income on housing, homelessness tends to be high, Loofbourrow said. In Sacramento, 4 out of 10 residents spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing, according to the Sacramento Housing Alliance, an advocacy and research group that supports building more affordable housing.

Several recent reports from real estate firms show Sacramento’s recent year-over-year rent increases are among the highest in the nation, with median rents in Sacramento County increasing by 18 percent between 2000 and 2017. Median Sacramento income declined by 11 percent during the same period, a recent housing alliance report said.

At the same time, 96.4 percent of apartments in Sacramento are occupied, the highest rate in the state and the sixth highest in the country, a report issued this month by RealPage, a company whose software analyzes data from real estate leases.

Sacramento also lacks shelter beds and long-term supportive housing that provides residents with mental health, medical and other services, the Sacramento Steps Forward report found. The city has about 1,200 to 1,400 shelter beds available on a given night, far less than what would be needed to house all those sleeping outdoors.

Right now, housing options for homeless people in the region have long waiting lists, leaving people stuck in queues and on the street.

“I need more units of housing to make our best efforts work,” Loofbourrow said. “We’re trying to find a door to put a key in.”

Lynne Guensler used to sleep in her green Mazda with her adult son, Brandon Reyes, and their Siamese cat, Fluffy, a few yards away from where Porter was smoking his morning cigarette in Land Park last week.

In February, two years after losing their Riverside Boulevard apartment and 18 months after beginning to work with Sacramento Steps Forward, she and Reyes are finally in a permanent house, she said Thursday – a shared home where they each have a room that costs 30 percent of their income and where Fluffy is welcomed. Reyes is back in community college and Guensler feels stable. But it was a long and at times frustrating process despite her best efforts, she said.

“We went through all the hoops,” Guensler said. “I did everything they asked of me.”

The Sacramento Housing Alliance, in a report released Friday, said the county would need to create 62,072 more affordable homes to meet current needs. Since 2008, it said, Sacramento County has lost 66 percent of its state and federal funding for affordable homes, more than $44 million annually.

That makes Guensler’s outcome enviable to those who still need help.

Mayor Steinberg said at the press conference that a lack of coordinated effort between the city and county is also to blame. The city and county are working on parallel tracks on a number of fronts, and have clashed on some proposals.

The county declined to apply with the city for $64 million in federal funding for health services for vulnerable populations including the homeless, money the city will now independently administer. Both the city and county are also pursuing plans for new homeless shelters, and a series of joint meetings seem to have sputtered after an initial one early this year.

On Tuesday, Sacramento County supervisors will consider a crackdown on the American River Parkway with more sheriff’s deputies and park rangers. If adopted – at a cost of up to $5 million – the plan would be at odds with the city’s emphasis on outreach with social workers rather than law enforcement. It could potentially push more homeless off the river and into neighborhoods without the immediate capacity to house them, also at odds with Steinberg’s resistance to shifting transient populations without shelter options.

“We have no commitment, and let’s be honest about it, to consolidating our resources and our various programs,” Steinberg said at the press conference. “We must have one system.”

Supervisor Phil Serna said the county is well aware partnership is needed to bring down the number of homeless.

“I can’t stress enough that all of us on the Board ... we are letting everyone that’s interested know that we are very eager to partner with not just the city of Sacramento, but all seven cities in our county and the cities and counties in our region on this complicated issue,” Serna said.

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Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa