Pictures from just a year ago show Velvelyn Brown smiling and plump. Today she is worn and thin, and has been living out of her car for several months. Anita Chabria
Pictures from just a year ago show Velvelyn Brown smiling and plump. Today she is worn and thin, and has been living out of her car for several months. Anita Chabria

Marcos Bretón

Connecting the dots on issues, people and news in the Sacramento region

Marcos Bretón

How Sacramento leaders feuded, rejected ‘haters’ and made a historic deal to fight homelessness

By Marcos Bretón

mbreton@sacbee.com

November 09, 2017 04:00 AM

UPDATED November 09, 2017 01:36 PM

It will be the biggest, most significant effort to combat homelessness that Sacramento has ever seen.

The deal was crafted by three old friends – Mayor Darrell Steinberg and County Supervisors Phil Serna and Patrick Kennedy. After a summer of internecine bickering, the trio decided they liked each other too much, and cared about their constituents too much, to let a turf war get in the way of confronting homelessness in the region.

They worked out the final details this past weekend in the Curtis Park home where Serna grew up, and where his late father, former Mayor Joe Serna Jr., died in 1999. Steinberg’s chief of staff Mike McKeever now lives in that house, a footnote that speaks to Sacramento’s enduring small-town feel despite its big-city problems.

It was fitting that the final piece of this effort was secured on Tuesday when the County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the use of $44 million for homeless prevention over the next three years. The date was the 18th anniversary of Joe Serna’s death. The elder Serna passed away from cancer during his second term as mayor, and is remembered to this day for his unflagging passion for the betterment of Sacramento.

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“Miss you, Dad,” Phil Serna wrote on his Facebook page after the county vote, posting a black-and-white photo of himself sitting on his father’s lap when he was a child. “Wish you could have seen how it went down today.”

What “went down” was significant: The City of Sacramento, led by Steinberg, already had secured $64 million in federal and local dollars for an outreach program to connect homeless people with mental and health services. That program, known as Whole Person Care, presumably will keep them out of emergency rooms and help get them ready for permanent housing. The $44 million approved by the county Tuesday means that there will be $108 million in targeted funding for homeless services over the next three years.

The county money approved on Tuesday is critical because it will pay for increased substance abuse and mental health counseling for homeless people identified for assistance with money secured by the city. Without those services, there was a greater probability that homeless people would end up back on the streets.

To be clear: The $44 million approved by the county is not taken from the county general fund. It is money allotted to the county by the state through the state Mental Health Services Act. The act imposes a 1 percent tax on personal incomes of Californians who earn more than $1 million a year. Taxes collected from the act are distributed to counties so they can bolster their mental health programs.

But counties around California have been banking MHSA funds to the chagrin of state legislators. The reason the county took until Nov. 7 to finally partner with Steinberg, after months of negotiations, is because supervisors couldn’t get a straight answer from county staff on how funds could be diverted to partner with the city.

County staff originally had rebuffed Steinberg’s proposed collaboration. The issue came to a head at an Oct. 17 county meeting where county CEO Nav Gill and his deputy Paul Lake were excoriated by supervisors for being unable to provide basic answers on county funds so the board could determine if it could partner with the city or not.

Tuesday’s unanimous vote was a direct rebuke to Gill and Lake. Unable to get the information they required from county staff, Serna and Kennedy ultimately did their own research, interviewing homeless service providers.

Still, the joint city-county effort to combat homelessness – as the number of people without shelter is spiking in Sacramento – would not have happened without Steinberg and his persistence. He led the effort to secure federal and local funding to identify homeless people for treatment and housing. But he knew the effort would not work without increased county dollars to pay for substance abuse and mental health counseling. And without the county’s commitment, it was possible that the city could lose tens of millions in federal funding.

So he kept pushing his friends Serna and Kennedy. He lobbied them to commit to a much larger homeless effort than they had envisioned to meet the desperation on local streets, which results in more than 2,000 people sleeping outdoors each night. He had separate conversations with Don Nottoli, also a county supervisor.

After months of sometimes difficult discussions, those three supervisors responded to Steinberg and ultimately chose to cooperate with him as opposed to listening to the go-slow approach advocated by Gill and Lake. That led to Serna and Kennedy crafting their own proposal. Ultimately, that momentum led to a unanimous decision by the board.

Serna and Kennedy both have expressed frustration that Gill and Lake were not giving them the policy answers they needed to do their jobs. Serna in particular was irked that Gill and Lake seemed confused in their roles. They are staff and their jobs are to take direction from county supervisors elected by voters, not the other way around.

Once they did their own policy leg work, Serna and Kennedy convened with Steinberg at Serna’s old family home in Curtis Park. “It felt comfortable,” Serna said. The deal came together quickly. Serna and Kennedy directed consultants hired by the county to draft a proposal they could present to the other three supervisors.

That proposal substituted a far more modest allocation of funds recommended by Gill and Lake. (County staff ended up recommending committing $42 million over six years.) The three other supervisors ended up agreeing. Gill and Lake barely spoke at Tuesday’s meeting and, quite frankly, this might be a good time for them to dust off their resumes.

Steinberg and the Board of Supervisors all deserve credit for thinking collaboratively in coming up with a strategy to finally tackle one of the most pressing issues facing our region. But Serna, Kennedy and Nottoli also deserve credit for thinking independently, and for questioning their staff when the information just didn’t add up.

“I’m proud of this,” Serna said.

“It’s a great day for the people of Sacramento,” Kennedy told me.

“This is a watershed moment for our community,” Steinberg said. “It’s a moment in time to change the arc of homelessness for the better.”

The significance of this effort cannot be overstated. Homeless people are proliferating in the Sacramento region. They live under freeway overpasses and often overwhelm Cesar Chavez Plaza, right across from City Hall. The American River has contained hazardous levels of E. coli bacteria. The cause, in part, is human waste from a people living in illegal campsites along the lower stretch. The resulting frustration has led to calls for “tent cities,” a misguided idea offered by some homeless advocates.

By committing $108 million over the next three years, the city and county have invested in the belief that homelessness is best confronted by going all in on getting people off the streets. The city-county effort rejects “tent cities” because there is no data to show they work. The combined effort also rejects calls for Sacramento to abandon its anti-camping ordinance, because people sleeping on streets is no good for anyone.

This is a massive commitment of funding and anyone in the future who suggests that Sacramento isn’t doing enough for homeless people is simply lying or not paying attention.

Sacramento has taken meaningful steps to help people in need while also respecting the rule of law and the rights of homeowners and property owners. It’s a move that a healthy, caring community would make.

Now comes the hard part. The money has been committed. Now is the time to make it work.

Marcos Bretón: 916-321-1096, @MarcosBreton