As Sacramento invests millions of dollars to address its homelessness crisis, a new survey released Wednesday shows that the number of homeless people in the county increased significantly in the past two years.
According to the biennial “point in time” count, its homeless population is more than 5,500 people, based on a survey conducted by volunteers this past January.
Sacramento Steps Forward and Sacramento State worked on the study and say this effort is a more thorough count of the population compared to one completed in 2017.
An apples-to-apples comparison of the two years indicates that the county experienced a 19 percent increase.
But with three times as many volunteers, and better methods of acquiring information, the total increase was 52 percent this year over 2017.
“We covered a very large part of the county, a much larger part of the county than previous counts,” said Sacramento State Professor Arturo Baiocchi. “As a comparison, we had 300 volunteers in 2017."
The count is funded by the Housing and Urban Development Agency and shows 5,570 people were on the streets, in their cars or in shelters at the end of January.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who also serves as co-chairman of the Statewide Commission on Homelessness & Supportive Housing, says the study shows the urgent need to invest in less-expensive housing options. He says it costs an estimated half-a-million-dollars to build a single housing unit, which he referred to as a "mini scandal."
"I know people say, ‘That's the way it is, that's the market, that's the Trump tariffs.’ OK. “There needs to be a local and statewide incentive here to focus these affordable housing resources on less-expensive modular housing," Steinberg said.
This year, volunteers who discovered people living in cars were trained to follow up the next day and find out how many people were inside the vehicles. The study found that about one-third of families were living in cars.
Steinberg says he supports the idea of parking spaces for homeless people who are living in their vehicles.
Bob Erlenbusch with the Sacramento Coalition To End Homelessness also supports a parking program and more transitional housing.
“Obviously, we need affordable housing in the long run, but in the short run, we need to keep people safe,” he said.
Seventy percent of all of the county's homeless residents were unsheltered, meaning that they lived out in the elements and not in cars or emergency shelters. And of the 195 families classified as such, the study found 33 percent were living in vehicles.
For years, most developers in the city of Sacramento have failed to build affordable housing as part of their projects, choosing instead to contribute to an inclusionary housing fund.
Steinberg says the best way to counter homelessness is to “bring them indoors.” He expressed frustration for the continuing focus on traditional units while ignoring tiny homes, like the type Marysville deployed in 2016.
“When you talk about tiny homes, why hasn’t that taken off? Because there’s no requirement that the large amount of public subsidy dollars … be spent on efficiency units, which by definition are less expensive,” Steinberg said. “That's a conversation that we need to have both here locally and at the statewide level.”
Sacramento Steps Forward CEO Lisa Bates says changes at the state level will allow for more access to land to build housing. “There is billions of dollars in resources that are coming down to actually finance the housing,” she said.
Bates also noted thatthe Capitol Hotel project, which will transition a downtown single-room occupancy hotel to permanent housing, was as an example of a new project.
Volunteers conducting this year’s count did not ask people why or how they became homeless. Instead, they wanted to know what people thought should be done to prevent homelessness in the future. The most popular response: more affordable housing.
Sacramento County is the eighth-most populated in California and is fifth in homelessness per capita, according to the new count.