Sacramento City Council changes its homeless ballot measure. Here’s what voters will see

·5 min read
Hector Amezcua/

A measure that aims to compel the city of Sacramento to create more shelter for homeless residents will remain on the November ballot, but it will only go into effect if Sacramento County leaders also agree to increase homeless services.

The Sacramento City Council late Tuesday voted 7-2 to amend a ballot measure they previously agreed to send to voters, reflecting concerns that it could succeed as designed only with support from county-run social services.

“Moving people around in circles is not homeless services,” Councilwoman Angelique Ashby said. “We need mental health, we need child services, we need domestic violence … we need resources. That means we need the county.”

Business leaders criticized the council vote as “gutting the measure.” They had been gathering signatures to qualify the proposal as an initiative for the November election. The business groups stopped collecting signatures when the council in April voted 7-2 to put their concept on the ballot.

“Stopping the active gathering of a citizens measure by promising to place publicly agreed upon language on the ballot and then not honoring that promise? Leadership or abuse of institutional power? You decide Sacramento. Let the people vote!” Amanda Blackwood, president and CEO of Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, posted on Twitter during the meeting.

Jeffrey Dorso, senior vice president for the Sacramento Kings, told council members that changing the ballot measure sent a bad message.

“I don’t know if any other ballot proponent ever going forward in the future will be ever wiling to negotiate on a ballot initiative,” he said.

The measure would require the city to identify up to 600 new shelter beds or spaces, and also empower officials to clear more encampments.

Under the new amendment, if voters approve the measure Nov. 8, it will only go into effect if the county signs a legally-binding agreement that “memorializes the respective roles of the city and county to improve the homelessness crisis,” a city staff report said.

The City Council wants the agreement to detail the county’s responsibilities to provide mental health and substance use services to homeless individuals who need them, the staff report said. It would also include the county’s responsibilities to refer individuals to housing, medical, employment, social services, drug rehabilitation, child welfare and domestic violence services.

The details of the agreement would need to be approved by the council and Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, and could also add a required number of new beds.

The agreement would need to actually make a difference, including county funding, in order to get council approval, Mayor Darrell Steinberg said.

“Nobody expects us to cure this but the partnership agreement has to represent, in terms of its financial obligations on both sides, roles and duties on both sides, the real possibility of genuine progress and better results,” Steinberg said.

Optimism on Sacramento council

Councilman Jeff Harris, who met with county supervisors hours before the meeting, said he believes the agreement can be done within 60 days, in time for the measure to go before voters.

“There is a willingness to get to the table and work this out,” Harris said.

Councilwomen Katie Valenzuela and Mai Vang voted to remove the measure from the ballot altogether. Their motion failed. The pair had also voted against putting it on the ballot in the first place in April.

“I’m going to refuse to let my sense of urgency push me to do something that is fundamentally wrong,” Valenzuela said, referencing grim budget projections. “To let this proceed frankly in any form puts the city in a level of harm.”

City Manager Howard Chan said he expects the city will have a $13 million deficit for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, partly due to rising pension obligations. The city currently spends more than $33 million a year to operate 1,100 shelter beds and spaces.

There are an estimated 9,287 homeless individuals in Sacramento County on any given night, a recent count found — nearly double the amount from January 2019 and more than San Francisco.

Homeless advocates say they’ll sue

Civil rights attorney Mark Merin and Sacramento Homeless Union president Crystal Sanchez have said they plan to sue the city if the city moves forward with the measure. Representatives from the National Homelessness Law Center, the ACLU of Northern California, Sacramento Housing Alliance and Democratic Socialists of America’s Sacramento chapter also raised concerns.

Homeless activists oppose the portion of the measure that would empower the city to start clearing encampments of four or more people on public property. They say clearing camps makes homeless people more vulnerable and less likely to get services. They also argue the measure wouldn’t require the city to build housing, just open more sanctioned tent encampments that do not get people indoors.

“(The measure) does nothing to compel any level of services and defines shelter of basically a few square feet of space on a blacktop parking lot,” said Rick Eaton of Sacramento Area Congregations Together. “This entire process is the epitome of bad governance.”

A federal judge recently barred the city from clearing tent encampments until at least Aug. 25 in response to a lawsuit from the homeless union.

The Sacramento City Council next week is scheduled to consider banning homeless individuals from camping on most sidewalks and in front of building entrances.