Addressing Homelessness in Sacramento

Could a city ballot measure and recent moves by the county help?

PUBLISHED SEP 9, 2022 12:00 A.M.
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The number of people experiencing homelessness in Sacramento County has soared in recent years.

The number of people experiencing homelessness in Sacramento County has soared in recent years.   Photo by Graham Womack

The results of the latest count of people experiencing homelessness in Sacramento County confirmed what anyone who’s driven in the capital city in recent years might surmise seeing encampments along highways or next to public buildings: Homelessness has reached historic levels.

A press release from Sacramento Steps Forward earlier this summer noted that a count taken in late February showed 9,278 people experiencing homelessness in Sacramento County, representing a 67 percent increase from the most recent count in 2019.

Arturo Baiocchi, a Sac State assistant professor of social work who did topline data analysis for the count, says that might not even be the worst of it.

“My view is that things could get even worse in these next two years,” Baiocchi told California Local. “If a recession happens, folks at the margins who were barely making it right now—who are maybe behind rent or behind utilities—they could really get pushed into homelessness.”

Clearly, more work has been needed to address homelessness and in Sacramento, things have been brewing. Efforts include a controversial measure that will be on the November ballot within Sacramento city limits and a recent decision by the county to clear encampments from the American River Parkway. The question now is just how effective these measures can be and whether or when the crisis might be alleviated.

Feds Say No to Criminalizing Homelessness

The beginning of the local rise in homelessness occurred around the same time as a 2018 federal court decision, Martin v. Boise, which prohibited cities from punishing people for sleeping outdoors on public land unless shelter space was available locally.

Sufficient shelter space is an issue in cities like Sacramento, where the recent point-in-time count noted that 72 percent of people experiencing homelessness “slept outdoors, not in shelters,” according to Sacramento Steps Forward.

There are only about 1,200 shelter beds within city limits, with roughly that many elsewhere in Sacramento County, according to Erin Johansen, CEO of Hope Cooperative and chair of the Continuum of Care board for the Sacramento region. Efforts to build additional shelter in parts of the city such as North Sacramento have been met with resistance from some local residents.

Local business leaders introduced Measure O in April, which could allow some camps to be cleared if emergency shelter space is available and an individual refuses it.

The ballot measure—which was primarily crafted by Daniel Conway, who served as chief of staff for former Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, and which was updated by city council on Aug. 9 with a 7-2 vote—doesn’t require emergency shelter space to be inside. The space can be in parking or other outdoor areas.

“We feel very strongly that Measure O is the absolute right thing that we need to do right now,” said Amanda Blackwood, president and CEO of the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and one of the leading backers of the measure.

Another of the leaders behind the measure, Region Business CEO Joshua Wood, said the impetus was the “astronomical growth in homelessness in Sacramento” that pushed the city past San Francisco for total numbers of people experiencing it.

“What it comes down to is if you had a massive disaster in Sacramento and you had 10,000 people on the street or more, we would bring in FEMA, right?” Wood said. “We would get every single resource possible, agencies would step up and they would fix it. The difference is we’re not treating it like a crisis—and it is a crisis.”

Encampments Breed Squalor and Disease

Aside from the human impacts for unhoused people experiencing homelessness, the city ballot measure noted that encampments “have led to infestation of disease-carrying rats and the spread of communicable diseases,” with water systems and Sacramento’s two great rivers facing E.coli contaminations.

Despite this, the measure lacks buy-in from well-known stakeholder groups such as the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, which is opposing it.

“This is a fairly transparent attempt to get around the Martin v. Boise decision,” SRCEH executive director Bob Erlenbusch told California Local.

Johansen said neither of the groups she’s affiliated with have taken a position on the measure.

“I understand why the community wants it; I totally get that,” Johansen said. “The problem is … that in order for you to tell a person they can’t be here, they have to be somewhere, you have to have a somewhere for them to go. And creating that many shelter beds and making sure that you have that many resources for people to get services is a big, heavy lift. So is it gonna be possible? I think there’s skepticism.”

Among other provisions, Measure O would cap the city’s general fund obligation at $5 million annually, likely well short of what would be needed to house every unsheltered individual in Sacramento.

Again, Measure O isn’t the only local effort related to homelessness. In August, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban camping on the American River and Dry Creek parkways.

“We’re not going to suddenly start sweeping everyone,” Capital Public Radio quoted Supervisor Rich Desmond saying during a hearing for the action. “We are inherently limited in how we can do that morally and legally until we have more capacity.”

That might not be good enough for people like Erlenbusch.

“The press statement they came out with the day after they voted for this thing last week was, ‘well, you know, we’re really gonna go slow and we wanna be strategic. We’re not trying to drive people off the parkway,’” Erlenbusch said. “Well, if you’re not trying to do that, then why did you pass the ordinance in the first place?”

People like Blackwood hope that the city and county would work together on homeless-related issues in the future, and she expresses optimism about a partnership agreement both sides are working on. For now, she says, efforts like Measure O are a start.

“I don’t think there’s any problem that we can’t tackle if we just find our energy together,” Blackwood said. “So we’re gonna get through this cycle and it’s gonna be what it’s gonna be. But I believe come November, we’re gonna have a very strong city measure.”

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