Homelessness is at epidemic levels across Sacramento County, but those working to end the crisis say there is hope for solving it—if the community has the will to do it.
In 2016, Donald Powell was living in an apartment on Cottage Way not far from Arden Fair mall with his daughter, then 4 years old. Although he has been on a fixed income since 2006 (he is disabled and lives with bipolar disorder, COPD and a heart ailment), Powell nevertheless managed to pay his bills on time and provide for his family. That was the case, anyway, until the rent on his apartment spiked.
“I was paying $825 a month. Then, the next thing I know, I was forced to move because it jumped to $1,375 and I could no longer afford it,” says Powell. He put his scant belonging in storage—“typical apartment stuff: some end tables, a few kitchen things, some clothes”—and spent a period of time living on the streets while his daughter, whose mother “is not in a frame of mind to care for her,” stayed with members of his family. “In the beginning, she was outside with me for a few days, but that was not good for her. My mom and sister have a house, so there’s no reason she should be out here just because I’m out here.”
Eventually, Powell found another place to live: a two-bedroom house not far from downtown where the rent was $825 a month. But when the rent jumped to $1,200, “I couldn’t afford that either, so I became homeless again.”
After nearly two years on the streets, Powell is still processing the circumstances that led him here. “This is the first time I’ve ever been in this type of situation. I’ve always had my own place. I’ve never been in this predicament. It’s like my hands are tied. It makes me feel like I can’t hold down a place, but that isn’t the case,” he says with a weariness in his voice. “It can happen to anyone.”
Powell laments that the only way he could afford a place in today’s rental market would be to take on a roommate. “But when you’ve got a little daughter that you’re raising, you don’t want to take on a roommate. That would be scary,” he explains. He has considered moving to a more affordable city. “But I stay because of my mom. She’s been sick, and I help take care of her when she needs stuff done.”
Powell wishes that city leaders would take more action on escalating rents and low-income housing. “For starters, I don’t think it was a great idea to give homeowners and apartment owners the right to raise the rents so high. I could understand some increase, but it has increased so much to where people who are on a fixed income don’t have a chance,” he says. “We’ve got all this new development going up, but are you building apartments for people who are disabled? Working people are able to afford it because they’ve got nice jobs, but a person like myself can’t afford it.”
Powell receives help from family—meals, transportation, child care—but doesn’t rely on them for housing. He sleeps most nights in a tent near downtown, where he’s been witness to violence and substance abuse. “A lot of people on the streets have been treated so bad so long that they do turn to drugs and alcohol, but that hasn’t been a problem for me. Seeing that makes me strive even harder to get off the streets.”
Powell has plans to enter a shelter soon where he can access programs that will help him secure affordable permanent housing. In the meantime, he does what he can to cope. “I rely on a lot of prayer. A lot of support from family. And just staying positive. That’s the main thing. You have to stay positive, because it’s easy to fall short out here and get in a negative way.”
No corner of Sacramento County has been left untouched by the current homelessness crisis. Visible evidence of the plight is everywhere: encampments along levees and under freeway overpasses, campers huddled outside of City Hall or loitering outside grocery stores, “No Camping” signs posted on the doors of businesses and in parking lots.
Organizations that serve the homeless estimate that several thousand individuals in the county lack permanent shelter and are sleeping outside or in a shelter or on a borrowed couch on any given night. Unknowable is the scale of human suffering that comes with being unhoused—how many incidents of physical or sexual violence, trauma, depression, hunger, sleeplessness, fear, loneliness or despair afflict those living without shelter.
Homelessness is arguably America’s most complex and stubborn social problem, precisely because a constellation of factors contribute to it: a lack of affordable housing; unemployment; poverty; domestic violence; health problems; physical disabilities; fractured familial relationships; mental illness; substance abuse; a lack of support for people discharged from hospitals or released from jail; aging out of foster care; a family’s rejection of LGBTQ youth. Alone, any of these misfortunes would be daunting. Stack two, three or more of these circumstances together and it’s not difficult to see how homelessness happens.
In Sacramento and across California, advocates for the homeless argue that the lack of affordable housing is largely responsible for the recent spike in homelessness. “The housing market is the No. 1 driver of homelessness,” says Veronica Beaty, policy director at the Sacramento Housing Alliance, a group that advocates for accessible and affordable housing. “As we’ve seen housing become more unaffordable, we’ve seen an increase in homelessness. And as we’ve seen a divestment in affordable housing, we’ve seen an increase in homelessness. The housing market’s contribution to the crisis outweighs any other predictive factor that you can look at.”
Noel Kammermann, executive director of Loaves & Fishes, which serves people in need through a wide variety of services, concurs. “In American society, there’s always been a certain amount of poverty. But I think what we’re seeing that’s different now is the impact of the housing crisis that we are in,” he says. “With the financial crisis of 2008, we took our foot off the accelerator when it came to building new housing, and unfortunately we didn’t put our foot back on quick enough to get things started again.”
Kammermann points out that many of the people being evicted from rentals are elderly, “which is a real problem, because when a person is retired, they’re on a fixed income. Then their rent goes up and they are finding themselves homeless for the first time, as a senior citizen.”
Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, also cites the loss of income or loss of a job as other key reasons for homelessness. “There’s a myriad of reasons that people become homeless, but the high cost of housing combined with loss of employment are the overarching reasons.”
Although experts have a grasp on the root causes of homelessness, advocates note that a great number of stereotypes persist about the region’s homeless population. “One myth that really drives me crazy is that they must be from somewhere else, but nothing could be further from the truth,” says Erlenbusch.
Kammermann points out that data from the biannual Point-in-Time Count debunks the myth that the homeless are from elsewhere. “What the data shows is that it is roughly a 70/30 split of people who are from the area and people who are from out of town,” he explains. “And that split is roughly similar everywhere in the United States. It’s not that we’re such a desirable location; we just have a high number of people who are experiencing homelessness, and this is true all up and down the West Coast.”
Another myth about homelessness is the magnet theory, says Erlenbusch. “That theory says that if we create all this affordable housing and build shelters, then homeless people from other parts of the country will move here. It’s just not true.”
Erlenbusch also says the assumption that homelessness is only deadly during the winter months is inaccurate. “Lots of people die outside during the other months,” he says. “That’s why we need year-round shelter, not just winter shelter.” According to Erlenbusch, 124 individuals experiencing homelessness died in Sacramento County in 2017, up from 78 people in 2016.
Then there’s the misconception that people are living on the streets because they want to and are essentially a lost cause. Kammermann doesn’t buy it. “There’s a reason why there are people out there who are resistant to receiving services,” he says. “If they knew that they were going to be helped, I think they would be more inclined to receiving the help and accepting it. But what’s happened is there has been some bad circumstance that has contributed to them being so resistant, and we can’t resign ourselves to just saying, ‘Oh, well, let them be then.’ We have to keep on reaching out to folks that need help.”
Without question, there are few experiences as traumatic as living on the streets. “It’s pure survival mode for folks out there,” says Kammermann. “It is traumatic when you don’t know when you’re going to eat, when you don’t know where you’re going to sleep, when you don’t know what’s going to happen in the next day or next hour. When people say things like, ‘Why don’t they just get a job?’ they’re saying those things because they lack the insight on the reality of living outside.”
Experts agree that the longer an individual lives on the streets or in a housing-insecure situation, the more trauma the person suffers and the more challenging the person is to house. “The longer they live unsheltered, the more likely they are to develop problems that will complicate them finding a stable housing situation down the road,” explains Beaty.
That’s one of the reasons Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg pushed to establish a 24-hour low-barrier triage shelter for adults where people could receive services—including everything from securing an identification card to accessing health care—to help them on a path to permanent housing. Low-barrier shelter means that guests can come as they are—with partners, possessions and even pets.
“This isn’t your old shelter model. This isn’t sheltering people just to get them out of the cold,” says Steinberg. “That’s of course essential, but it’s much more than that. It’s meeting people where they’re at. Low-barrier triage is essential because there must be a bridge between the riverbank or the streets to permanent housing. More times than not, the person who’s sick and has been on the streets is going to fail. Triage is essential.”
The shelter that opened in 2017 in a warehouse on Railroad Drive near Del Paso Boulevard and the Woodlake neighborhood faced vocal opposition early on from residents and business owners who feared it would attract crime, litter and other nuisances. But city officials say crime in the area has dropped significantly since the shelter opened. And through an organization called Downtown Streets Team, volunteers who are themselves homeless help keep the surrounding area free of debris.
The Railroad Drive location is far from perfect. Guests must use portable toilets and outdoor showers. The upper bunk beds have proven difficult for infirm and disabled individuals to use. There is little outdoor space for guests and their pets to recreate. The shelter has no kitchen; three daily meals are brought in to the facility each day. And it isn’t cheap: It costs around $400,000 a month to operate the facility.
Nevertheless, the shelter, which is run by Volunteers of America and funded through private donations and city funds, is largely considered a success. Dozens of individuals, many of whom have been homeless for years, have moved on from the facility into permanent housing.
Now, the mayor is calling upon the city’s eight council members to commit to housing at least 100 individuals in each of their districts, whether in one large shelter or in scattered residential sites. It will be a hard sell for elected officials to make to residents, but Steinberg insists that bringing solutions to scale across the community is a necessary step toward getting thousands of people off the streets.
“I have to and we have to be willing to withstand the discomfort that comes with this kind of policy and ask people this fundamental question: Are you really OK with the way that it is, even in your own neighborhood?” says the mayor. “Do you really think that if we sit on our hands and we’re not aggressive about expanding a concept that has been proven successful, things are actually going to get better? Would you rather have people outside in your parks and on your sidewalks, or inside, sheltered?”
Donald Miller is a testament to the value of a low-barrier triage shelter. Born in Sacramento to a large family, Miller graduated from Foothill High School before joining the Marines. He served in Desert Storm, an experience he says changed him forever. “I didn’t want to be over there, but you have to serve your country,” he says. Although Miller suffers from flashbacks and seizures, he works occasionally for his cousin’s landscaping business. The income, however, isn’t enough to pay for stable housing.
Miller, a soft-spoken man who wears a rubber wristband imprinted with the words “Everyone Matters,” had been without a roof over his head for several months when he entered the shelter. He had been evicted from an apartment due to drug use by his then-girlfriend and was living on the streets when a member of the Sacramento Police Department’s Impact Team helped connect him to the Railroad Drive facility.
“I came here and it looked good,” Miller says of the shelter. “I knew some people here. Everything started going good for me here. I didn’t like being out on the streets because it got too rough out there, people fighting all the time. I feel safe here.”
Miller is working with a caseworker to obtain identification documents after his birth certificate was stolen. He hopes someday to secure an apartment with the help of shelter staff. “I just want to be off the streets, living happily,” he says. In the meantime, he makes himself useful around the Railroad Drive facility, sweeping up or wiping down tables in the eating area, and takes pride in his contributions to the shelter.
Anna Darzins, program manager at the Railroad Drive facility, says that the public can sometimes feel impatient about the lack of visible progress in addressing the homelessness crisis, but she witnesses meaningful victories every day.
“The biggest thing we can offer is our connection to our guests,” says Darzins, “because it’s through that relationship that we’re able to see some magnificent changes and benefits. What I would like for the public to know is that this type of program serving a community as vulnerable and complicated as this sometimes takes time and a great deal of effort, but there are tremendous wins that come from having an approach that is welcoming to the individual. It’s not always a linear road, and it doesn’t always look the way we might have imagined, and because of that it might be easy to jump to some conclusions.”
Like Darzins, many people serving Sacramento’s homeless community remain hopeful in the face of what seems like an intractable problem.
Kammermann, in spite of feeling frustrated by the slow pace of change and what he considers overly aggressive enforcement actions against the homeless, insists there is a way out of the crisis. “Homelessness feels like it’s this massive thing that people are never going to solve. It doesn’t have to be,” he says. “There are other communities in other states where they are having success, and we need to look at those models and do some of those things here. We have a lot of really smart people in the community who, if we listen to them, we could all get to a better place on this.”
Rachel Davidson, who operates Sacramento’s Downtown Streets Team, believes that city and county leaders deserve credit for their bold action throughout the past year or so. “I have to give praise to our elected officials in Sacramento right now. I view them as really being ready and willing to take some risks to implement some innovative solutions that are going to create long-term and sustainable change in Sacramento.”
Like Kammermann, Davidson believes wholeheartedly that homelessness is a tough yet solvable problem. “It’s about creating opportunities for affordable housing, changing the conversation and the perception within the community, and it’s ensuring that we have wraparound services that are going to walk with somebody from that first moment where they are ready to engage in services to their long-term stability of becoming a productive community member.”
Beaty, too, believes homelessness needn’t be a permanent condition, but maintains change is predicated upon state and local officials implementing policies to address the lack of affordable housing.
“I want the public to know that this is a solvable problem. As much as it can seem insurmountable, there are real solutions that have been in place in Sacramento before that are in place now in other jurisdictions or that are underway here,” she says. “We have an opportunity to get things right in Sacramento. Things aren’t as dire here as they are in Los Angeles or the Bay Area. A lot of our debates aren’t as entrenched. We are poised to learn from other jurisdictions and create a new way forward here.”
Cindy Cavanaugh, the director of homeless initiatives for Sacramento County, asserts the public can do its part to help alleviate the problem by embracing affordable housing. “You really can’t have it both ways of wanting to solve homelessness but not wanting affordable housing,” she says. “That can be a tough message for community members, but that is what they can do.”
Emily Halcon, homeless services manager for the city, believes the community is finally poised to make progress on the issue, even if that progress is slow. “I feel hopeful that we have the political will and the community interest and the financial resources all moving in the same direction for the first time that I can think of,” says Halcon. “If we’re going to make a demonstrable change in our community, it’s going to happen now.”
Steinberg, who has staked his legacy in part on reducing homelessness, remains as committed as ever. “I never promised to cure it—because there is no cure—but I have promised that we will use every bit of energy, resources, ingenuity and commitment to making this problem better. It is one of the most difficult problems we face, but homelessness does not have to be hopelessness.”
He also understands that the public expects tangible results. “Am I confident we’re going to get thousands of people off the streets? Yes. But there is a harder test, and that is: Will people actually feel the difference out there in the community?” He believes it would be a shallow victory to move thousands of people into housing “only to have them replaced by a new cohort.”
Steinberg remains steadfast in his desire to bring successful programs to scale. “I have said before that I refuse to preside over modest success. I have no guarantees, but we have to set big goals and hold ourselves accountable,” he says. “We know what works. We just have to have the will and commitment to translate hundreds into thousands and to not let the difficulty of it or the setbacks that occur stop us from continuing to make it better. If we don’t give up on people, we can get them off the streets.”