After Sacramento Self-Help Housing—What Happens Now

Former SSHH clients and staff, as well as officials and providers, adjust to new operations

PUBLISHED APR 19, 2024 5:15 P.M.
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Clifford Smith sits at a house he was leading for City Net in September 2023. Smith was previously a house leader for Sacramento Self-Help Housing, which collapsed and went bankrupt last year.

Clifford Smith sits at a house he was leading for City Net in September 2023. Smith was previously a house leader for Sacramento Self-Help Housing, which collapsed and went bankrupt last year.

This is the final entry in an investigative series about the collapse of Sacramento Self-Help Housing. That organization, which once excelled at helping people who’d experienced chronic homelessness rebuild their lives, filed for bankruptcy and closed in May 2023. Get caught up: part I; part II; part III; and part IV.

There were positive things Clifford Smith could talk about.

Smith, 72, went to work in recent years as a monitor at a house in south Natomas then leased by Sacramento Self-Help Housing, where formerly homeless people could live. That organization, also known as SSHH, closed its doors last May and filed for bankruptcy two days later. The house, where Smith was living when he spoke to a California Local reporter in September 2023, is now operated by City Net, which is headquartered in Southern California and has a local office.

“The class that I have now is excellent,” said Smith of the current residents at his house, noting that he’s formerly homeless himself and clean and sober now. “They get out and they do what they need to do. And they are looking, looking for permanent housing. And they go to their doctor's appointments, dentist appointments and stuff.”

Still, there’d been some changes.

City Net agreed last spring to take over a contract with Sacramento County to provide scattered-site shelter, which SSHH used to handle. Scattered-site was just one of SSHH’s programs, representing around 100 of the approximately 700 people the organization was housing when it announced its closure.

Smith no longer receives hourly pay and is not considered an employee. City Net no longer buys groceries at regular intervals as SSHH once did. House leaders receive a $150 monthly gift card.

Smith wasn’t complaining about either program, though.

“I can’t pass a judgment on them,” Smith said, when asked his thoughts on SSHH’s demise. “I’m just now waiting to see how it’s gonna turn out.”

Not Making the Transition

Not everyone who once had housing through SSHH has been able to transition over to City Net or other organizations that have taken over SSHH’s contracts. This applies both to people who had longstanding housing through SSHH and others who arrived as the organization was approaching closure.

As SSHH’s problems were compounding throughout 2022, it was continuing to accept clients, such as Jessamy Cartwright, who agreed to house rules on June 24 of that year, according to documents she provided.

SSHH typically offered a one-year program for scattered-site shelter. Cartwright, 49, said that as SSHH was collapsing last spring, she and others in her house lived for three months without a caseworker, time she believes shouldn’t have counted toward her year.

Cartwright claimed that as City Net was coming in, she was told her year was up and made to leave at the end of last June. Robert Clooney, 66, who was living in a nursing facility near Cal State Sacramento in late September and identified himself as one of Cartwright’s former SSHH roommates, claimed he was also made homeless from City Net housing under questionable circumstances.

City Net CEO Brad Fieldhouse said he wasn’t aware of anyone going homeless due to the transition with SSHH. “I've learned long ago that there's often more to stories,” Fieldhouse said. “I’m also client-focused. So if that was the case, there may have been other circumstances involved, whether those were revealed or not.”

Jeremy Baird, who worked 10 years for SSHH, was its final interim CEO over its last two months, and is now regional program manager for City Net, also defended success rates for programs like his.

“I have a track record of taking in the most difficult to serve of Sacramento County's homeless population,” Baird said. “The fact that we don't have 100-percent success rate… or even close to that, is largely attributable to the fact that we're attempting to serve the most difficult to serve.”

Cartwright sent a text in January reporting that she’d finally found housing, through Mercy Housing.

It’s also been apparent that successor programs such as City Net weren’t going to be able to help everyone that SSHH once helped.

Moving Forward

Baird had a front-row seat while his former company burned to the ground financially. Accordingly, it’s not hard for him now to defend decisions like choosing to forgo paying house leaders. “Self-Help Housing made numerous financial errors, including the most obvious one, spending more than they brought in,” Baird said. “And City Net is determined not to repeat that mistake.”

The shift is not just about money, though, Baird added.

“There's just a kind of a different mindset at City Net that our regular full-time staff are going to take much more responsibility for the housing sites, rather than putting the onus on a minimally-trained and para-professional person living in the house,” Baird said.

Fieldhouse, whose work in Southern California around homelessness goes back more than a decade, expressed hope about what City Net will be able to accomplish in Sacramento. But he was also clear-eyed about the problem that has compounded in recent years in California.

“We as a community are facing an incredible crisis, and the numbers are going in the wrong direction,” Fieldhouse said. “These are real lives and real people. And it's not okay that people are living and dying on the streets and in the ditches and in vehicles in the state of California.”

He added that his organization’s resolve was unwavering.

“We signed up for this work to be part of solutions that change people's lives,” Fieldhouse said.

The challenge is that in places like Sacramento County, where, as of the most recent count with publicly-available numbers, in 2022, more than 9,000 people were living unsheltered, the problem around homelessness sometimes seems far greater than savvy nonprofits or conscientious local public officials can handle.

The federal government began cutting funding for public housing decades ago, turning to an inefficient, voucher-based system for affordable housing.

SSHH used to receive funds for permanent supportive housing through the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development’s local continuum of care, Sacramento Steps Forward, or SSF. SSF has acknowledged significant service gaps in recent years. A needs assessment prepared for SSF in late 2022 found that just 34% of the roughly 12,000 people in the coordinated access system were using permanent supportive or similar housing.

For a time after SSHH’s collapse, SSF directly managed permanent supportive housing before inking a contract in late 2023 with SHELTER, Inc. As noted in part I of this series, SHELTER, Inc. was brought in to wrap that program up, according to Julie Clemens, its director of development. The organization has been in the process of closing properties and returning keys to landlords, with Clemens expressing hope in February that no one would be made homeless involuntarily by the transition.

Clemens noted that SHELTER, Inc. would be losing money on its arrangement with SSF, since it was contractually obligated to take over properties that had long been unoccupied and fallen into disrepair. “I want to disavow anyone of a belief that SHELTER, Inc. is making money off of this contract,” Clemens said.

The results aren’t better at the state level, with California accounting for one-third of people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. The Associated Press noted in April 2024 that an audit found the state had spent $24 billion on homelessness in the past five years but didn’t always track results. State voters recently approved Prop. 1, which could impact the treatment of people experiencing homelessness. It remains to be seen how the law will work in practice.

Locally, city and county leaders have long struggled to work together to deal with homelessness and have sometimes fought one another over the issue.

In Sacramento in late 2022, city and county leaders touted finally forging a partnership around working on homelessness, as mandated by the passage of Measure O. But this partnership has frayed, with Sacramento County District Attorney Thien Ho filing a lawsuit last September over the city’s reluctance to clear encampments.

In March 2024, the city ordered the closure by mid-May of one of Sacramento’s most prominent encampments, Camp Resolution – where, as part IV of this series noted, two former SSHH residents wound up as the organization was collapsing.

“There are a lot of good people trying to help the situation in Sacramento,” said Clooney, who noted that he has been homeless off-and-on in the area since 2009 and was an elder at the city’s original Safe Ground site, a place people could legally camp. “But it's an uphill battle.”

What Might Come Out of SSHH’s Experience

Anthony Prince, who is general counsel for the California Homeless Union, says his hands have been full, mounting opposition to Ho’s lawsuit and other actions like obtaining a federal injunction last summer that briefly prevented the city from clearing encampments due to excessive heat. Prince added that his office had been in touch with “substantial numbers of people” who had potential damage claims against SSHH.

Baird says he is withholding judgment about why SSHH went out of business, but worries about the impacts.

“I don’t know if it was any one person’s fault,” Baird said. “It’s just a lot of things contributed to that collapse and it left a big hole in the services in Sacramento County. So even though we did everything we could to find suitable alternative agencies to pick up the work that Self-Help was doing, it still just put more work on others who were already doing that work in the community.”

Bob Erlenbusch, the executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, said that the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency had been tasked with putting together an affordable housing plan. “They want to create and fund a program almost identical to Sac Self-Help Housing,” Erlenbusch said. “I have no idea what they’re thinking.”

SSHH’s collapse seems like something that, at best, might prove a powerful case study for local officials and other nonprofits. Sacramento County Supervisor Patrick Kennedy, who served on SSHH’s board in the mid-2000s, said the county had been reaching out to smaller nonprofits that do great work.

“They don't have the acumen and the experience and the infrastructure in order to deal with things like the federal government reporting requirements, which are very arduous, and which is a good thing: It's public money,” Kennedy said. “We're actually reaching out to them to provide them with services to help educate them and help them become more sustainable.”

Longtime SSHH CEO John Foley acknowledges that he and his organization could have used help.

“There are a lot of smaller nonprofits that are still trying to provide significant services and would benefit by having enhanced capacity, training and support funding for that kind of stuff,” Foley said. “I didn't even know we needed it, necessarily …  dumb as I was. But looking back, we certainly did. I think there is more of a recognition now of the need to get help in that way.”

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