Sacramento’s death toll among homeless is rising. Are county and city OK with that?

Renée C. Byer/rbyer@sacbee.com

In January, The Sacramento Bee published a database of the nearly 200 homeless people who died in Sacramento County last year. It was a shocking and sad reminder of the danger facing our homeless population.

A new report from the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness suggests that the number was even higher: An additional 32 names have since been added to the list, bringing the total number of deaths up to a staggering 227 people. At least eight of them froze to death — many around the holidays — representing the highest number of hypothermia deaths in Sacramento in two decades.

Opinion

These homeless deaths are directly attributable to the lack of action by our city and county government officials to get people sheltered indoors in freezing weather, despite having budgeted millions of dollars to do so.

Until they do, more unnecessary deaths are bound to happen — like that of Kenneth Steele, 41, who died of hypothermia in January 2021, while sleeping outdoors next to a south Sacramento elementary school; or Kenneth Donnelson, 61, who died of hypothermia near Arden Fair mall, sleeping between two banks just days before Christmas; or John Lain, who died at 63 of probable hypothermia at Cesar Chavez Plaza, just across the street from City Hall, in February 2021.

The regional coalition rightly called on Sacramento County to create at least 500 shelter spaces inside warming shelters before temperatures drop this winter. It must also have transportation and county services available or those shelter spaces won’t help the Sacramentans who need it most. Without action, the county and city are inviting needless death.

More than 9,000 people are homeless in Sacramento County on any given night, according to the latest, federally-mandated count, and nearly 20,000 people will experience homelessness at some point this year. Despite a combined budget of nearly $9 billion dollars, Sacramento County and the city of Sacramento have only opened about 2,400 shelter beds and spaces on any given night, and those are typically full, with waiting lists.

Homeless people must have shelter during the worsening winter storms and summer heat waves that have already claimed the lives of hundreds. While heatstroke did not cause any reported homeless deaths last year, it did take the lives of two homeless people in 2020.

The city is opening a year-round, 50-bed, referral-only respite center in North Sacramento this week, where bathrooms, showers, food and water will be available. Clients can stay for 23 hours while staff members try to help them figure out their next stop. The county, with nearly six times the city’s budget, still has no plan to open any year-round respite center.

The county and city’s continued lack of action is disgraceful, particularly since a major storm in January 2021 showed just how deadly that inaction can be. And despite Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s promise more than a year ago to open a 24/7 warming center in the city of Sacramento, one has not materialized.

How many more preventable deaths will it take to finally motivate city and county leaders to do what’s necessary and protect the vulnerable people dangerously exposed to the weather?