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Grand Jury Homelessness Report

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Around 10,000 people sleep on the streets every night {Photo credit: Sacramento County Grand Jury}

The Sacramento County Grand Jury recently issued another report about how homelessness is handled in Sacramento County. Long story short, they said it is a mess. That's obvious to most anybody with a pulse. The report, seeking accountability and transparency, recommends turning over the work to a county-wide Joint Powers Authority (JPA) with representatives from each of the seven cities in the county and the County itself. As you might expect, the report pretty much skipped over how Sacramento County's unincorporated area is supposed to participate in the JPA - largely because the Grand Jury did not seem to understand the inherent problem of having the County be responsible for areawide aspects of the homelessness problem AND also be responsible for the municipality duties owed to the 606,000 residents of the UnCity - the urbanized unincorporated communities that comprise the largest subordinate local government entity in the county.

Yes, people who live in the City of Sacramento are legitimately concerned about homeless encampments in their jurisdiction. So, too, are residents of the all the other cities in the county. They deserve to have a place at the fix-the-problem table. But those 606,000 UnCity residents, who are also concerned, don't get a voice. That's us, folks. We don't matter. Sure, Sacramento County will be at the table, but you can be assured that our unincorporated commnunities will not be top of the mind. Sacramento County's participation in the JPA (if it is formed) will prioritize solving the areawide problems: things like public health, mental health, drug addiction, courts, incarceration, probation, unemployment, etc. Next in line would be optimizing for properties owned and operated by the County, including shelters and respite centers under its direct control, the American River Parkway, County parks, County government buildings, and so on. Relegated to last place would be the localized impacts we all feel: inadequate housing, high rents, law enforcement problems, litter, sanitation, panhandling and the heartbreaking abundance of people who are down on their luck.

For years now, the County has pushed its duties at dealing with homelessness over to a contractor, Sacramento Steps Forward. That contractor, though unsuccessful at solving homelessness within the county, has provided cover for the County Supervisors. They could point to the massive investment of funds (typically money provided by someone else) being spent on Navigators and Point-in-Time surveys. Attainable goals for shelter beds, counseling, transitional housing or other services were not part of the equation. Worse, the Supervisors bought into the City of Sacramento's Rabbit Hole - big time - as if Mayor Steinberg's or Councilmember Harris' interests in dealing with homelessness were the only ones deserving of attention.

By getting sucked into 2x2 meetings with the City of Sacramento in order to discuss the city's schemes to concentrate homeless shelters, respite centers and services across the street from Arden Arcade (at places like Cal Expo and the old Science Center on Auburn Blvd.), the County wound up playing defense instead of showing initiative. They let Mayor Steinberg control the narrative and dictate the actions such that our community wound up overburdened. Meanwhile, the plight of the region's unhoused residents has worsened. Of late, though, the County has shown more of a leadership interest. The fairly recent appointment of Emily Halcon as the County's first-ever Homelessness Czar is a sign the Supervisors realized they needed to get their act together. The County's investments in Safe Stay communities (shelter+services), including the new one being established at an old warehouse at 4837 Watt Avenue in North Highlands, seem like steps in the right direction. So, too, is the conversion of the Arden Star Hotel on Howe Avenue into a permanent supportive housing facility. Still, those projects are but drops in the bucket. Thousands upon thousands of people sleep on the streets here every night. And that's why the Grand Jury spoke up.

There is plenty of blame to go around. National and state policies have shifted money upwards to the privileged, leaving the poor and the destitute behind. The middle class, which was (arguably) thriving in the 1950s and 60s is now struggling. Enormous numbers of jobs have been offshored, lost to automation, or become obsolete. Rents have skyrocketed while housing starts have plummeted.  While Covid exacerbated the problem, its main impact on homelessness  was to bring it out into the open. Will a JPA make anything better? The Grand Jury sure hopes so, because it saw JPAs starting to work elsewhere in the state. Now our local Legislators have jumped on the JPA bandwagon. Yes, they say, in the name of transparency and government accountability, let's have a JPA serve the Sacramento area, with elected officials from 5 cities (Sacramento, Folsom, Elk Grove, Citrus Heights and Rancho Cordova) and the County participating with 1 member each. Hmm...that might work for the participating cities, but how will it work for us in the UnCity? Oh, in the usual dysfunctional way, with the County "looking out for our  interests". We know how that works, don't we? Arrangements like that are how it happens that we have no transit, inadequate road funding, disproportionate shares of rental housing/cheap apartments/refugees, and an overabundance of discount stores, thrift stores, liquor stores, check cashing places, sidewalk free-cellphone vendors and so on. Fairness is one thing, being a dumping ground is another.

Today,  Assemblymembers Kevin McCarty tweeted (see below) that he and Assemblymembers Stephanie Nguyen and Josh Hoover have introduced legislation to "...create the Sacramento County Partnership on Homelessness - a Joint Powers Authority w/ Sacramento County local governments to strategically tackle homelessness." Care to guess what the strategy will be? As George Carlin once famously said, "It's a small club and you ain't in it."


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