Here's a look inside the North Sacramento homeless shelter

The first 50 of about 200 homeless people occupying a shelter on Railroad Drive in North Sacramento arrived Friday, Dec. 8. The shelter has sparked controversy among nearby residents and business owners.
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The first 50 of about 200 homeless people occupying a shelter on Railroad Drive in North Sacramento arrived Friday, Dec. 8. The shelter has sparked controversy among nearby residents and business owners.
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Editorials

In 2017, Sacramento at last agreed on a plan to aid the homeless. In 2018, we must act.

By the Editorial Board

December 22, 2017 04:30 AM

It has become a grim Christmastime ritual. Amid the cheer of twinkling lights, homeless people and remorseful politicians file into the pews of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral every December to mourn the men, women and children who continue to die on the streets of Sacramento County.

Last year, the death toll was about 80 people, including a 28-year-old pregnant homeless woman who was hit by a car. Mourners dedicated an ornament to her unborn child.

This year, the number is a shocking 112 – the most ever recorded by the Sacramento Coalition to End Homelessness. Two of the men who passed away did so on the cold concrete outside Sacramento City Hall, one of them huddled with only a small red blanket to keep warm.

The public recognition Sacramento gives homeless people in death is right and proper. But it means little if we continue, in life, to fail them.

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Such tragedies can make the possibility of a better new year feel terribly distant. But this year’s Interfaith Homeless Memorial Service at Trinity Cathedral on Thursday, though punctuated by tears, marked a hopeful milestone for Sacramento’s neediest residents.

Despite the eyebrow-raising death toll, 2017 was also the year the city and the county finally found the political will to enact a series of promising programs and to set aside enough money in their budgets to make them effective.

In 2018, both local governments have vowed that their bureaucratic institutions will turn those promises into real action.

Sacramento’s elected officials have to show those of us who dodge panhandlers every week and shake our heads at the growing tent cities under highway bridges that the homeless population is shrinking. Otherwise, all of the momentum that has been building over the past year will be lost and, with it, hope among those who need help most.

The most obvious litmus test will come with Whole Person Care. Implemented last month after weeks of feuding between the City Council and county Board of Supervisors, it’s a program that almost didn’t happen for Sacramento.

It’s designed to get chronically homeless people into mental health and addiction treatment, shelters and, eventually, permanent housing. The city, working with local hospitals, helped secure $64 million toward its implementation, with another $44 million coming from the county in state Mental Health Services Act dollars.

That the county agreed to work with the city on homelessness at all is a feat worth celebrating. It’s unprecedented and, for that, we credit the long experience and budgetary skill of Mayor Darrell Steinberg and his working relationship with the supervisors, particularly Patrick Kennedy and Phil Serna.

Now what’s most important is getting Whole Person Care off the ground. Already, outreach workers are referring homeless people to newly funded county services and emergency shelters. But will those men and women end up back along the American River Parkway or on the street, shouting at invisible demons? Or will they get stable enough to have their own apartments?

The city’s triage shelter model presents another series of pressing questions. Residents in North Sacramento complained mightily when they learned that the city would be plopping a temporary shelter in their neighborhood for the winter. There were the typical NIMBY objections, but also legitimate concerns about an uptick in crime and trash.

The mayor has said that he wants the shelter, now up and running on Railroad Drive, to prove to skeptical residents that properly run homeless shelters can exist in neighborhoods without turmoil.

Hanging in the balance is whether residents of more affluent neighborhoods, such as East Sacramento or Land Park, will be more amenable to opening a triage shelter near their homes in 2018.

Steinberg has said that he wants to open more shelters to the meet the need, and indeed, one neighborhood in North Sacramento shouldn’t have to shoulder sole responsibility for what is a communitywide problem.

But there are also things the city and county can’t control, which could have a huge impact on the homeless population – both here and across California – in 2018 and beyond.

For example, it’s unclear how the Republican tax plan will affect the development of affordable housing and the state’s already tight housing market. After an uproar, Republicans did preserve the Low Income Housing Tax Credit in their legislation, but there’s a good chance there will be cuts to other housing programs to pay for the $1.5 trillion in debt that the plan will rack up over the next decade.

Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, expressed particular concern, saying in a statement: “This bill will exacerbate our country’s already yawning income inequality and will harm efforts to end homelessness and housing poverty.”

That’s a sobering thought, given the growing number of deaths on the street, and of names read aloud each year at the Interfaith Homeless Memorial Service.

The public recognition Sacramento gives homeless people in death is right and proper. But it means little if we continue, in life, to fail them.

In 2017, California’s capital agreed to join forces in behalf of the most vulnerable among us. In 2018, the task is to get them some help.