A homeless encampment along North B Street in Sacramento. Sacramento County’s most recent point-in-time count reported 5,570 homeless people, an increase of 19 percent since 2017. (Photo by Fred Greaves)

Daunting Dilemma

Homelessness is one of our region’s most pressing concerns — and it’s proving to be one of the most perplexing to solve

Back Longreads Oct 14, 2019 By Jessica Laskey

Comstock’s asked a panel of experts from across the Capital Region to share their thoughts on the issue of homelessness.


What are the driving factors of homelessness?

patrick-kennedy-for-web.pngPatrick Kennedy, Sacramento County: “There are community contributing factors — access to housing that is affordable is key. Rental market changes are impactful. A recent study looking at shifts in rents and incomes placed Sacramento in the top 10 of least-affordable markets nationally, with rents rising faster than wages. Lack of housing production — both market-rate and affordable housing — contributes to homelessness, which means resolution is more difficult. Other contributing factors that are not completely quantified include changes within the criminal justice system and the lack of options for elderly or other persons needing specialized care to maintain their housing.”

sarah-bontrager-for-web.pngSarah Bontrager, Elk Grove: “At this point, I think we all know about rising rents and insufficient new construction of housing. We’ve also seen a reduction in room-and-board (and) board-and-care facilities, which are a meaningful option for many homeless individuals, especially those with disabilities. Also there is a need for greater substance-abuse treatment and mental-health support options in the community.”

jeff-brown-for-web.pngJeff Brown, Placer County: “First and foremost, the lack of affordable housing. Placer County has a residential vacancy rate of less than 1.65 percent, making it incredibly difficult for our low-income population to find affordable units. Other factors that also play a significant role include mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, limited education and job skills, and a history of foster care.”

mike-leahy-for-web.pngMike Leahy, Yuba County: “Economic situations — being priced out of rent — is the No. 1 factor for seniors. As they survive on a limited income, there is only so much to go around. A simple rent increase of $50 will price them into homelessness, with no ability to gain a new place. Lately, the rent increases are far more than these individuals can handle. They live on a thin line of balance.”

frank-axe-for-web.pngFrank Axe, Amador County: “Substance abuse — alcohol, methamphetamine and opiates — mental illness, health issues, job loss and low-paying jobs, lack of affordable housing, poor life decisions and the death of a spouse — we have an older population, and there is an ever-growing population of senior citizens living in their cars.”


What approaches have been used to address homelessness in your area?

sarah-bontrager-for-web.pngSarah Bontrager, Elk Grove: “One of the major changes in recent years has been the phasing in of ‘housing first,’ which is a model that focuses on finding a household a safe and stable place to live and then working on issues that may affect their ability to maintain housing, like substance abuse and employment. Studies have shown that this model is more effective than, say, requiring homeless people to be sober before receiving assistance. Some people will challenge this, but I try to look at it from the perspective of someone out on the street — when you don’t know where you’ll be sleeping that night or if your belongings will be stolen if you leave them, it’s really hard to commit to making appointments for substance-abuse and mental-health treatment. … One of the things I’m most proud of in Elk Grove is our partnership with the nonprofit Elk Grove HART (Homeless Assistance Resource Team). They’re an all-volunteer nonprofit that runs a winter sanctuary that moves between churches. Over the course of 12 weeks, more than 1,000 people volunteer as drivers, overnight staff, food servers, etc., and they’re all encouraged to have dinner with the guests at the host church. That’s a lot of people who come away with a better understanding of what homelessness looks like in our community.”

mike-leahy-for-web.pngMike Leahy, Yuba County: “We used to chase them across the river, then the county next door would chase them back. Fortunately, Yuba County has had some of the only positive results in reducing this problem in California. We enacted a ‘housing first’ concept three years ago. Our county put together what is now known as 14 Forward, a tiny-shelter program (made up of 20 sheds and supporting elements that provide temporary shelter) that allows people to regain footing on issues that they feel have kept them homeless. Our community helped fund it, and companies and individuals sponsored the sheds. The program has guidelines, and the residents must participate in various programs, including counseling, drug rehab via local 12-step groups and so on.”

patrick-kennedy-for-web.pngPatrick Kennedy, Sacramento County: “We’ve recently created a jail-diversion pilot program and expungement services to help people return to jobs and housing. For many years, we’ve funded a large transitional housing campus on 33 acres of county property focused on employment and recovery. We hired our first county director of homeless initiatives in 2016, created several new homeless initiatives in 2017 and adopted a comprehensive homeless plan in 2018.”

jausiah-jacobson-for-web.pngLt. Jausiah Jacobson, Fairfield: “We initially established a two-man homeless intervention team in 2013 where enforcement was the focus. We quickly learned that establishing rapport with those afflicted with homelessness and approaching the issue with a service-first mentality would prove to be far more effective.”

jeff-brown-for-web.pngJeff Brown, Placer County: “About 2 1/2 years ago, we successfully applied to become a Whole Person Care pilot program, the first project in the Sacramento region. This Medi-Cal waiver program targets individuals who are high utilizers of services, including the jail, the local hospital emergency room and psychiatric health facilities. The goal … is to reduce the utilization of these expensive services while at the same time stabilizing each participant’s medical condition and improving their quality of life. By combining intensive services with housing assistance, we have been able to see significant reductions in service facility use, while at the same time secure our participants housing. In the first two years of the program, we were able to permanently house over 100 individuals.”  


What are the biggest obstacles to addressing homelessness?

mike-leahy-for-web.pngMike Leahy, Yuba County: “One of the obstacles has proven to be the state law and the courts who have — time after time — halted any realistic enforcement efforts. Three areas have contributed most: the legal aspect, as in changing the criminal codes to lower penalties; the closure of mental health state facilities and ‘releasing’ the mentally ill upon society, then placing the burden upon the counties without providing a funding source; and California’s lack of participation in any solution, including economic development.” 

rene-evans-for-web.pngRené Evans, El Dorado County: “Money: If we had more money, we could house every last one. Housing: If we had the money, we could build more housing units. Political will: It’s getting better and better, our county government is supporting more and more programs that support the needs of the extremely low-income classes.”

sarah-bontrager-for-web.pngSarah Bontrager, Elk Grove: “One of the things we found out from talking to people looking for housing was how much competition there is for units — people would tell us they’d make an appointment to see an apartment, and they’d get there, and there would be 10 or 20 other people there to look at it. Because there are so many people looking for housing, landlords have a lot of choices, and they’re not willing to take a chance on someone without recent rental history or with an eviction. Once people leave housing, especially with an eviction, it’s really difficult to get back into housing.”

denise-cloward-for-web.pngDenise Cloward, Amador and Tuolumne counties: “Capacity in rural regions is limited. Staff at the county level need to write grants and connect all funding into one area, and law enforcement and health-care funding must be part of the solution. Insurance issues for those needing both psychiatric and substance-abuse counseling are also at play, as is attracting large developers into smaller regions to build housing.”

frank-axe-for-web.pngFrank Axe, Amador County: “Changing public perception. By helping the homeless, it will not attract more homeless people to the area. There’s a misconception that they are all drug addicts and responsible for their situation so we shouldn’t help them, as well as resentment that they are taking resources from the community.”


How do you see homelessness affecting businesses, and what do you see as the role of the business community in solving this crisis?

jeff-brown-for-web.pngJeff Brown, Placer County: “We have had local businesses complain about homeless individuals loitering and/or panhandling in front of their offices and stores. Our goal has been to direct our outreach teams to these areas and attempt to engage these individuals into program services. Our Whole Person Care pilot program has been particularly successful in working with many of these individuals. … For our safety-net programs to be truly successful, we need the support of the business community. Support for siting any facility is essential for success. Other support is also critical. For example, in North Auburn, many of the local businesses support The Gathering Inn’s emergency housing program at the (Placer County) Government Center. They provide financial assistance, in-kind donations and mobilize volunteers to assist the program and meet whatever needs they may have.”

mike-leahy-for-web.pngMike Leahy, Yuba County: “Handling or dealing with the homeless is a core issue that affects the livelihood of business owners. Loitering drives customers away, and, oftentimes, there is a criminal element — not always, but it does occur. Our local businesses were plagued with such issues until the Marysville Police, led by Chief Christian Sachs, made a huge impact. We can’t criminalize being homeless, but we can enforce other nonassociated laws such as loitering and panhandling. The largest solution was in landscaping and clearing brush, exposing the business and eliminating hiding areas. This translated into a 90 percent reduction in those types of complaints among business owners.”  

jausiah-jacobson-for-web.pngLt. Jausiah Jacobson, Fairfield: “Many businesses … complain of a lack of patronage due to homeless individuals loitering in the area and frightening customers. … Businesses can partner with local government agencies to come up with viable solutions … through education, crime prevention through environmental design, hiring new or additional security staff, communicating and partnering with neighboring businesses, and contacting local law enforcement agencies.”   

rene-evans-for-web.pngRené Evans, El Dorado County: “In a very negative way — we see trash and drug paraphernalia, which means people don’t go to certain stores or shopping centers because of the homeless contingent frightening folks. This all leads to a loss of revenue, from the business owner to the county, state and federal government. … (Business owners) must continue to call the police and sheriff’s departments, which in turn brings the problem to the forefront as an issue to be solved in our community. Compassion and support are also important. It’s tough on the homeless to be in that situation, and it’s also tough on our business community to deal with it every day.”

denise-cloward-for-web.pngDenise Cloward, Amador and Tuolumne counties: “The business community needs to meet and share their experiences and discuss ideas — since blaming doesn’t work — about how to address the problem.”


What approaches might be tried in the future?

jeff-brown-for-web.pngJeff Brown, Placer County: “Shared housing — while not always desirable — has become a reality for many of our state’s residents. Our department has embraced this strategy, working together with funders such as Sutter Health and nonprofit organizations such as Advocates for Mentally Ill Housing. We procure the housing and transfer it to nonprofit organizations like AMIH to operate while we continue to provide services — including mental-health treatment and case management — to the residents.”

rene-evans-for-web.pngRené Evans, El Dorado County: “I believe it will be a combination of enforcement; cash infusion; maybe building tiny houses in a tiny-house village with a community center; opening regional fully staffed and fully funded shelters for each of our communities that have on-site services like security, 24-hour staffs of trained officers, health services like (tuberculosis) tests and flu shots administered by nurses; computers; job-search assistance; housing-search assistance; housing advocates; transport services; day care; and more.”

denise-cloward-for-web.pngDenise Cloward, Amador and Tuolumne counties: “Law enforcement must have an alternate place to take folks who are not going to be arrested. If they don’t have an alternate place to take them, those people stay in our parks or near businesses and cause issues. Sheltering is only a short-term solution, however; if we don’t also connect them to services, they will only end up bottlenecking the system.”

patrick-kennedy-for-web.pngPatrick Kennedy, Sacramento County: “We know there is not a single silver-bullet solution. Solving homelessness requires not only innovation, but also a dogged persistence and commitment to continue what is working. This means that we will plug away at furthering the strategies and activities in six key solution areas identified in our County (of Sacramento) Homeless Plan: preventing homelessness; mitigating the street crisis; expanding and improving sheltering; expanding rehousing and new housing production; improving the impact of mainstream services; and working together to improve our system leadership, capacity and accountability.”

frank-axe-for-web.pngFrank Axe, Amador County: “We’ll be implementing a low-barrier shelter, a sanctioned camping area for the homeless, whether it is in tents or in cars. Portable toilets and wash stations can be supplied, thereby creating a more sanitary situation. Having a central location will facilitate the application of mental-health services and provide a mechanism (or) pathway for the reintegration of the homeless.”

jausiah-jacobson-for-web.pngLt. Jausiah Jacobson, Fairfield: “We’re working on creating a multidisciplinary team to conduct frequent outreach services. This could include local law enforcement, mental-health professionals, medical professionals, and health and social service professionals.”

mike-leahy-for-web.pngMike Leahy, Yuba County:“Enforcing all laws combined with a rehab option. … In our recent (point-in-time) count, we actually found that a majority of those in tents or lean-to type dwellings are drug addicted. The number of substance abusers is staggering, yet most municipalities refuse to address this directly. While many say that the government should fix (homelessness), it is an issue that can only be solved with all hands on deck. It takes everyone to make a long-term change.”

sarah-bontrager-for-web.pngSarah Bontrager, Elk Grove:“Often what happens when people become homeless is that they gradually lose their ties to community — they interact less with family, friends and social-service and faith organizations, and they lose the sense of belonging and social support that those relationships provide. Some of the most successful housing seeks to re-establish a sense of community connection. It’s easier to make good choices when you have someone walking alongside you.”

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