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

Editorials

Sacramento County just found millions of extra dollars to spend on homelessness. Time to cash in

By the Editorial Board

October 17, 2017 06:18 PM

UPDATED October 17, 2017 07:22 PM

Sacramento County is broke. That was the story anyway.

For years, even as the population of mentally ill homeless people ballooned along the American River and on the streets of downtown and midtown, the Board of Supervisors kept turning down advocates’ requests for money. They felt they had no choice.

But as it turns out, Sacramento County actually does have the money to help more homeless people than it is helping now.

How much money? By some estimates, as much as $98.4 million – all of it squirreled away in the county’s pot of funds allocated under the state Mental Health Services Act.

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To put things in perspective, the county spends about $40 million on all of its homeless services every year. That’s in addition to the $6.5 million that supervisors agreed earlier this year to spend on transitional housing and a new, 75-bed “rehousing” shelter, as well as another $5 million to roust homeless people for camping and dumping trash on the parkway.

But altogether, that still doesn’t come close to the $98.4 million in mental health services funding, which has just been sitting there, unspent.

That the supervisors were apparently unaware of its existence borders on malfeasance. At the very least, that the money is there could cause the state to reclaim it if the county doesn’t spend it within three years.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who sponsored the Mental Health Services Act, Proposition 63 in 2004, pointed all of this out during Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

When pressed for answers, Sacramento County Executive Nav Gill and Deputy County Executive Paul Lake countered – very weakly – that most of the money had already been earmarked for projects, some that were even 10 and even 20 years away. They had drafted a careful plan and didn’t think it wise to scrap it and start over.

But waiting to spend money isn’t an option. The crisis of homelessness is now.

More than 2,000 men, women and children sleep outdoors every night in Sacramento County, according to the latest headcount. Most of them have been homeless for years and can been seen shouting at the air on midtown streets, or worse, passed out on sidewalks next to used syringes of opioids.

Homelessness has become a public health disaster that can’t be ignored any longer. Real collaboration backed by real money is needed.

For that reason, county supervisors should work with Steinberg and the city to use as much of the $98.4 million as possible to get homeless people into addiction treatment and mental health counseling immediately. Those services, run by the county, are so underfunded and overwhelmed that the waiting list for help can be weeks or even months long.

Steinberg has identified $54 million that could be used over the next three years to complement the Whole Person Care grant program, awarded to the city to get homeless people out of emergency rooms and into county-run addiction and mental health programs, and eventually into housing.

The county, particularly, county staff, has been reluctant to work with the city to implement Whole Person Care, citing money as big reason. But now that a source of money has been identified, there should be no more excuses.

Supervisors Phil Serna, Patrick Kennedy and Don Nottoli seemed to get that, ordering county staff to return with an detailed explanation for the mental health services funding so a decision can be made on how to allocate it within a few weeks.

Not every problem can be solved by throwing more money at it. But when it comes to the thousands of people who sleep outdoors in Sacramento County every night, more money is the only solution.