Sacramento County’s latest count of its homeless residents confirmed what many suspected: There are many more unhoused people in the region than there were before the pandemic. The county’s homeless population increased 67% over the past three years, and that’s just the people they could find.
The data should be taken as a dire warning that what the region is doing isn’t working. Those closest to homelessness believe the problem will only get worse if the county continues on its current course.
The numbers suggest that most of the nearly 9,300 homeless people counted in January aren’t homeless due to the pandemic: They were already homeless beforehand.
Homelessness in Sacramento County was already on the rise pre-pandemic, and we probably haven’t yet seen the full impact of the global plague in exacerbating the pressures of the state’s housing shortage.
According to the prior survey, in 2019, one in four Californian communities, including Sacramento, saw unsheltered homelessness double over the previous four years. Since then, the housing affordability crisis driving those numbers has only worsened: Between the onset of the pandemic and the homelessness census, Sacramento’s median rent climbed more than 20%.
The good news is that the pandemic-era housing programs instituted by the city and the county — mostly the city, let’s be honest — have likely helped slow the onslaught. The bad news is that some experts expect the numbers to rise precipitously over the next few years anyway.
Many of the people who are newly homeless due to the pandemic haven’t yet exhausted options such as sleeping on couches with friends and family. But if they don’t find their way to stable housing soon, more of them are likely to end up among the unsheltered on the streets.
“When folks become newly homeless, they have other support systems; they have friends, family that they can stay with,” said Angela Hassell, chief executive of Sacramento’s Loaves & Fishes shelter, food kitchen and homeless advocacy program. “And then they kind of hit the more desperate level of living outdoors a little bit later. But I think we’re still going to see the impact of the pandemic. … We just may not have had enough time for that to have made as much of an impact as we might have thought.”
What the city and county are doing is simply not enough — especially the county.
Hassell said the back-and-forth between local governments creates “bureaucratic whiplash.” She also emphasized the necessity of regarding homeless people as people.
”They’re not just a number,” she said. “They are individuals and families and people with hopes and dreams and ideas. We should listen to them in terms of what works and what doesn’t work when we’re providing services to them.”
That’s not the impression left by a city ballot measure that would require the city to build some shelter capacity but simultaneously outlaw homeless encampments and the people living in them, triggering a game of 9,300-card monte.
Daniel Conway, who is spearheading the measure, told me the goal is “to basically pull the rug out from underneath the policymakers” and force them to change their approach to homelessness.
“We’re going to change your defaults on you and say, ‘You know what, you’re no longer able to just let people, like, care for themselves in these encampments. You now have to do something about it; you need to come up with something that is better,’” he said.
Conway added that he hopes the county will put a similar initiative to voters.
What that will actually do is create more of a problem, Hassell said.
The initiative “elevates living unhoused and camping to a misdemeanor rather than an infraction, which puts further pressure on our criminal justice system and also puts more barriers in the way for folks experiencing homelessness,” Hassell said. “They’re now, all of a sudden, charged with a misdemeanor and potentially given jail time. ... Those are things that are big red flags that landlords and different housing programs often use to exclude folks.”
Shane Weather, who lives under an overpass near the intersection of Broadway and Alhambra Boulevard, told me that he believes outlawing encampments won’t do anything but force them to move from place to place.
“We’d move right down the street and come right back. Where else would we go?” he said. “You have to deal with the problem instead of locking it up.”
He and his neighbor Wade Pettitt said they’ve both been homeless for many years, and neither one of them recalled being interviewed for the January census. Nor did any of the other men I talked to there.
No one familiar with the problem, much less any of the unhoused themselves, believes Sacramento’s numbers will stop at 9,300.
The new data underscores the need to act in the interests of homeless people — by helping and housing them — instead of catering to those who wish they would simply disappear.