The End of Homelessness?

wishful thinking in sacramento

The good news: Sacramento is ending homelessness! Not so good: They’re accomplishing this mission the same way George W. Bush “ended” the war in Iraq, with a media event and balloons.

Last February, The Oprah Winfrey Show reported on the shameful “tent city” of homeless people living along Sacramento’s American River. According to the show’s initial report, and much of the attention that followed, the encampment’s residents included many families who were there as victims of the recession. As it turned out, that wasn’t the case. There wasn’t a single child in the bunch, and, overwhelmingly, homeless people in the encampment (as elsewhere) had underlying mental-health problems and/or addictions. Still, the part of the story Oprah got right is that in the United States of America, shantytowns disgrace us all. And eventually, the city’s mayor, Kevin Johnson, abandoned his view that a properly protected tent city might be part of a temporary solution to an uptick in the number of homeless people. So, what’s happened since then? Last month, Oprah’s reporter returned to see what progress had been made. The city scheduled a coinciding event that the local newspaper admiringly described as a “pep rally,” where crowds cheered the mayor’s announcement of a plan to end homelessness in Sacramento. If I thought it might work, I’d be cheering, too.

On November 5, the Sacramento Bee reported, “Johnson and other leaders kicked off the ‘Sacramento Steps Forward’ initiative, with a goal of establishing and fully funding 2,400 housing units for homeless people during the next three years.” The event, an editorial noted, “had the feel of a campaign rally, complete with politicians, balloons, flags, and celebrities.” Oprah’s reporter gushed that she was in awe of how much had been accomplished in such a short time. But beneath all the hoopla is a mere handful of broad and worthy goals, along with hubristic claims about providing “a national model.” And according to county statistics, about 1,194 of Sacramento County’s official homeless population of 2,800 remain unsheltered. (Last year, those numbers were 1,266 of 2,678; this is progress?)

In the spring, Johnson also hopes to move sixty homeless people into tool sheds—officials are calling them “sleeping cottages”—possibly on an empty lot behind existing emergency shelters. So, to recap, the tent city came down a while ago, and the city now plans to create a...hut city? Yes, and according to the Bee, even some advocates for the homeless consider this an acceptable “temporary” solution—a “stepping stone,” they’re calling it. (I only hope this isn’t like the “temporary” shed erected at the historical site adjacent to my house; according to town officials, it has been there “temporarily” for twenty-five years.)

As for the 2,400 new units Johnson proposes to build, how will they be financed in a lousy economy when there was no money for them in flush times? When I asked Tim Brown, director of Sacramento Steps Forward, he answered that one-time economic stimulus money from HUD’s Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program will be used to help people stay in their homes—and will thus prevent an additional 1,000 people from becoming homeless. None of the stimulus money can be spent on new housing for those already living on the street, though, and Brown could not explain where that funding would come from, given the draconian cuts already underway as a result of California’s budget crisis: “I can’t say all the funding is in place, but it seems like we’d be able to find it.”

There is nothing wrong with aiming high. But I was troubled by Brown’s assertion that “at least 70 percent of the homeless population only needs temporary assistance.... [They] are getting back on their feet anyway.” He is using the narrow government definition of “chronic” homelessness to support the dubious claim that short-term help will suffice for most homeless people. He’s also contradicting his own data, which show that at least 75 percent of the local homeless population suffers from significant physical or mental disabilities and/or substance abuse and therefore needs more than temporary help.  

It isn’t only bureaucrats who, in my view, are fudging the facts. For as long as I have been following this issue as a volunteer and as a reporter, some advocates for people living on the street have been loath to admit there are almost always underlying problems, perhaps out of a desire to shield those they’re trying to help from public disapproval. That reluctance to make homeless people “look bad” has only made it more difficult for them to get the treatment and long-term support they need.

As long as the word “homeless” has existed, so has the tension between those who feel our responsibility is to feed, clothe, and shelter people in need—and those who wonder whether prioritizing emergency needs almost inevitably prevents people from addressing long-term problems. In theory, we all say we should do both—and I disagree with those who use “Jesus doesn’t want us to enable addictions” as an excuse to do nothing. Still, at what point does the wrong kind of help actually hurt? It’s a complicated moral call for sure, but homeless people do need more than a house—and a lot more than a 150-square-foot tool shed. Maybe we could start by recognizing that part of the problem is our political addiction to unrealistic five-point plans.

Published in the 2009-12-04 issue: 

Melinda Henneberger, a Commonweal columnist, is the former editor-in-chief of PoliticsDaily.com.

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