John Castaneda, 71, homeless for 40 years spends, walks near the Capitol. He spends most of his time on the grounds. Jose Luis Villegas
John Castaneda, 71, homeless for 40 years spends, walks near the Capitol. He spends most of his time on the grounds. Jose Luis Villegas

Erika D. Smith

Associate editor and editorial writer

Erika D. Smith

What’s worse than failing to fix homelessness in Sacramento? Spending $5 million to fail again.

By Erika D. Smith

esmith@sacbee.com

July 13, 2017 05:15 AM

UPDATED October 18, 2017 10:48 AM

So much for that agreement to collaborate.

It was only Monday when Mayor Darrell Steinberg, clearly livid over a report showing a 30 percent spike in homelessness over the past two years, challenged Sacramento County’s Board of Supervisors to be better about working with the city to get people off the streets.

Every night, 3,665 people across the county go to sleep without a permanent place to live, according to the Point In Time report, and more than 2,000 of them do so outdoors.

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“We have no commitment, and let’s be honest about it, to consolidate our resources and our various programs,” Steinberg declared at a news conference, prompting nods all around. “We must have one system. It’s time we commit to that goal.”

The response from county supervisors?

Just 24 hours later, they went rogue yet again.

On Tuesday, they ordered staff to figure out a way to spend $5 million on rousting homeless people for illegally camping with their pit bulls and dumping trash along the American River Parkway. Specifically, if approved next month, the county would hire more park rangers and maybe more sheriff’s deputies to run “Homeless Outreach Teams,” which engage in the endless and legally dubious task of trying eradicate campsites.

This, for $5 million. What a waste.

To put things in perspective, earlier this year, the county agreed to spend an additional $6.5 million on transitional housing and a new, 75-bed “rehousing” shelter that’s supposed to open next year. Any way you look at it, though, that’s nowhere near enough to meet the need as described in the Point In Time report.

Already, hundreds of homeless people can’t get the help they need, when they need it, because the county’s mental health and addiction programs are overwhelmed and underfunded. Housing remains a pipe dream.

But finding $5 million to move homeless people around the parkway? People who, according to the Point In Time report, are overwhelmingly old military veterans with PTSD? Issuing them tickets they’ll never pay, making them take down camps they’ll rebuild around the corner the next day? No problem.

If this isn’t a clear sign of the county’s mixed-up priorities and backward thinking, I don’t know what is.

As Joan Burke, the director of advocacy for Loaves & Fishes, testified on Tuesday: “Consider spending the $5 million to provide additional emergency shelter for homeless people. That money could provide a 200-bed shelter and that would remove people from the parkway.”

That’s logical. But county supervisors seem to believe that homeless people, when offered help, won’t take it. That they will refuse shelter and treatment for addiction or mental illness.

While this is certainly true of some homeless people, it’s not true of all or even most of them. Why else would shelters be full every night? And why would the waiting lists for county services and housing be so long? Sacramento’s problem isn’t demand; it’s supply.

What supervisors also don’t seem to fully understand – or at least appreciate – is that the law isn’t on their side when it comes to forcibly ridding the parkway of homeless people.

Defenders of the parkway will argue that protecting the miles of urban green space is every bit as important as helping the homeless people who are destroying it, which is fair. Mile by precious mile, the parkway is being gobbled up by makeshift campsites, unbelievable amounts of trash, buckets of human waste, used needles and fires from cooking stoves. It also is a shame that residents – myself included – are afraid to use trails, for fear of being hit with a rock or chased down by a vicious, off-leash pit bull.

But at both the state and federal levels, the law prohibits authorities from going around destroying campsites and seizing homeless people’s property without notice. The city and county also can’t grab pit bulls just because they happen to be off a leash. These are infractions punishable by a ticket, which is pretty much meaningless to someone who is bipolar, addicted to heroin, and living in a cocoon of branches and tarps.

The supervisors meeting on Tuesday was full of comments like, “we can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” followed by spirited conversations about how to do just that.

Like one exchange between Supervisor Sue Frost and Deputy County Executive Robert Leonard. Of park rangers, Frost asked: “When they approach the campsite, do they physically see where (homeless people) go? Or do they just tell them, 'Leave here. Go somewhere else’?”

“The parkway is public space,” Leonard explained. “Anybody has the right to be there. And someone walking with a tent and a sleeping bag moving through public space, that’s not an illegal activity.”

The City Council begrudgingly accepted this long ago, investing in a strategy of social workers, not cops.

Steinberg has made clear that aggressively enforcing the city’s anti-camping ordinance just to move homeless people from block to block when there aren’t enough shelters is as stupid as it is expensive. Meanwhile, he’s backing a health-care-focused $32 million federal grant called, which could help thousands of mentally ill, chronically homeless people over the next 3  1/2 years.

On Tuesday night, after county supervisors tentatively moved ahead with their plans for the parkway, Steinberg reiterated his call for a single strategy to address homelessness, vowing to get 2,000 people off Sacramento’s streets within the next three years.

“I’m willing to hold myself accountable,” he told The Bee. “I was hired by the people of Sacramento to do many things and at the top of that list is to help make a tangible difference on homelessness.”

Now, if only county supervisors would remember they were hired to make a difference on more than just the American River Parkway.

Homeless in Sacramento

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

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith