As the weather grows colder and wetter, the roughly 5,570 Sacramentans sleeping outdoors on any given night will face harsher conditions. Some will position themselves on boulevards and corners to ask strangers for cash, while others will sit quietly in alcoves and parks, waiting for someone to drop them a few dollars or something to eat.
People who pass homeless individuals on the street may feel torn about whether or not to donate money or supplies. One CapRadio listener asked, “Is it really helpful to give cash handouts to the person on the street asking for help? What is the best way to help?”
As part of our “Great Question!” series, we talked to local homeless individuals and advocates about what they say people should (or shouldn’t) do.
‘Like a Miracle’
There are a lot of arguments against giving out cash. Opponents worry homeless people won't use the money wisely. Some critics say providing homeless individuals with food and basic supplies makes them less likely to seek out more comprehensive services. Panhandling is also prohibited in some parts of Sacramento County.
But advocates who work with homeless individuals say a small kindness can go a long way toward helping someone find their next steps. Paula Lomazzi, executive director of the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee, said when she was homeless it was “like a miracle when someone gave me a $5 bill, and also it was a miracle when someone would give me their leftover dinner from a restaurant."
She said people who give out cash shouldn’t worry about what a homeless person is going to spend it on.
“Whatever it is, they probably need it because they’re living in poverty,” she said.
About a year ago, Michelle Taylor was living at Cesar Chavez Plaza in downtown Sacramento. She was sitting on a bench, bundled in a hat, gloves and a winter jacket.
“Best thing when we’re out here dealing with the harsh elements, especially being a woman … protection of some kind,” she said. “It makes it easier with hand warmers and socks and coats and blankets and a tent.”
Taylor said she became homeless after a domestic violence situation and couldn’t get the money together to pay a deposit on a new place. And though she tried to use public resources to get back on her feet, she kept hitting roadblocks.
“I could have used three dollars today to get to my appointment at the welfare office, to try to get assistance of any kind,” she said, adding that she's been fined for riding transit without paying the fare . “But I can’t risk another light rail ticket because I already have about ten of them. So here I sit, without anything accomplished.”
For people who aren’t comfortable giving out cash but do want to donate food, it’s important to note that not all food is helpful.
Taylor and other homeless individuals we spoke to said the best food items are power bars and canned meats, such as Vienna sausages. Taylor said anything that requires a can opener or a microwave is generally not useful.
The Portland Rescue Mission, a nonprofit in Portland, Oregon, advises against giving out money, but the nonprofit offers a guide to packing a care kit full of snacks, socks, toiletries and other staples.
For those who aren’t comfortable donating to individuals, there are many ways to give to local nonprofits. Loaves and Fishes provides showers, meals and casework services downtown. Executive director Noel Kammermann said it’s becoming more difficult to keep up with demand.
“We serve a lot of folks food every single day, so there’s a big need out there,” he said.
“We’re seeing a lot more folks than we were previously seeing … so for folks that want to get involved, we welcome all support.”
Their current “urgent needs’ list includes:
- Toilet paper (sealed packages or individually wrapped single rolls)
- Sleeping bags, blankets, tarps, and tents
- Shoes, shoelaces, and socks
- Travel-sized soap, shampoo, conditioner, lotion, lip balm, hand sanitizer, tissues
- Combs and brushes
- Pet food (unopened, large dry or canned)
The nonprofit is also collecting food and toys for the holidays.
But advocates and homeless people say one of the most valuable things you can give someone is a friendly nod, or a bit of your time and sympathy.
“Ask questions,” Taylor said. “Ask me why I’m here. It’s not easy to get back on your feet once you’re down.”
A Bigger Problem
While giving donations to individual homeless people may provide temporary help, advocates and public officials say it does little to combat California’s homelessness crisis.
There are around 5,570 Sacramentans experiencing homelessness on a given night, according to the latest count. It’s a 19 percent increase from last year.
Though the city has made some efforts to keep people off the streets, such as launching a program for chronically ill homeless people and adding new shelters, there are still homeless people scattered among Sacramento’s alcoves, underpasses, parks and transit stops. Their presence has caused some conflict in the busy downtown area, which is expected to draw more tourists as development continues around the Kings arena and the planned soccer stadium for the Sacramento Republic soccer team.
And until July, the city had an ordinance banning soliciting within 30 feet of banks or ATMs, driveways to businesses or near bus stops. A federal judge blocked enforcement of the ordinance after a homeless man sued the city with help from the Legal Services of Northern California and the regional American Civil Liberties Union chapter.
In the unincorporated county, panhandling is still forbidden near banks and ATM’s, on median strips, outside businesses and at gas stations. The county directs people who witness illegal solicitation to report it to the non-emergency Sacramento County Sheriff number at 916-874-5115.
They also recommend helping homeless people by directing them to 211, the county’s service line.
“Calling 211 can sort of get to the root of whatever the issues might be, whether they’re in need of temporary housing, health services, mental health services,” said county spokesperson Kim Nava.
The city is currently considering a host of proposals to solve the homelessness crisis, including tiny home villages supported by Measure U tax funds.
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