One of Mayor Darrell Steinberg's key campaign issues was addressing the homelessness population in Sacramento. Days after he was sworn into office, homeless died of cold on the stairs of city hall. Yet as he approaches one year in office, many question his focus and dedication to the problem.
Steinberg explains recent plans to create more homeless shelters, work with the county to raise money for outreach and mental health services and reflect on what has been accomplished a year into the position.
[*This is an abbreviated transcript. Some questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.*]
BETH RUYAK –After you were sworn in as Mayor, news broke oftwo homeless people dying in the cold at City Hall. That said “urgent problem.” The question a lot of people have is: has the urgent response happened?
MAYOR STEINBERG – The urgent response is happening. In the [past] 11 months, I have made this a top-tier priority. And though people are not yet seeing the difference, they will soon. Here’s what we’ve done: the city [of Sacramento] was the only city in the entire state to apply for and receive a federal Medicaid grant called Whole Person Care. Sixty-four million dollars allows us, beginning this week, to do intensive outreach and case management for over 3,000 people over the next three years. On Nov. 7, we are going to the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, I have made a request for $54 million of Mental Health Services Act dollars. If they say yes, and I am hopeful that they will, we will have combined $118 million worth of new resources, new capacity that we have never had. And I have said I will hold myself accountable. We must get at least 2,000 people off the streets over the next three years given these resources. And I believe that we can.
BETH RUYAK – How exactly does that money reach someone in need on the streets?
MAYOR STEINBERG – There are five key elements to getting someone who is chronically homeless off the streets. First, intensive outreach: you don’t just pass somebody by and say, “Do you want help?” If they’re addicted to drugs, if they’re mentally ill, they’re not going to say yes the first time. It takes intensive relationship-building and trust-building. We’ll get 80 percent of the people off the streets if we employ intensive outreach.
Second, case management: Once you get them in, you don’t voucher somebody and say, “Go across town and get the help you need.” You’ve got to wrap yourself around them in their beginning stages of recovery.
Third, triage emergency shelter: We’re having a controversy out in North Sacramento. But we desperately need more beds where people can be assessed before they get into permanent housing, and we’re very committed to that.
Fourth, permanent housing: The city and county togethertransferred 1,755 discrete housing units to bank for the homeless. We need to put those to use.
Finally, mental health and substance abuse resources. That’s why I made my $54 million request, and why combined, if they say yes, we will have unprecedented capacity to take those five elements one by one and get thousands of people off the streets.
That’s ultimately the answer. I know there’s a lot of side issues that are important. There’s the lawsuit, there’s the camping ordinance, there’s the unhappiness in some neighborhoods about locating some facilities. I get all that. But I believe very strongly that if we don’t take aggressive action, that this problem is going to get worse on its own. It went up 85 percent between 2015 and 2017. Not on my watch as mayor of this city. We’re going to make it better.
BETH RUYAK – If all this has been underway, our first storm is rolling in Friday, why is it that so many people think you haven’t been aggressive, or haven’t been aggressive enough? And we’re just hearing in a very concentrated way over the last couple of weeks about these actions. Was there a gap in communication?
MAYOR STEINBERG – No, I don’t think so. We received the Whole Person Care grant in the spring. That was well publicized. My request of the county has been well publicized.
BETH RUYAK – And you have talked about those things before on this program. So why the tone? Why the atmosphere that exists in this city where there seems to be a big divide on how much is being done or what’s being done?
MAYOR STEINBERG – Because the problem is getting worse on its own. And I’ve only been mayor for less than a year, my job number one is to gather these resources. The big problem is we know what to do, we just haven’t had the capacity to be able to do it. So my job, my connections to the State Capitol, my authorship of the Mental Health Services Act (Proposition 63), and my knowledge of what it takes to make a difference … Okay, it’s taken some months. And frankly, it’s going to take a couple years, I think, for people to see a demonstrable difference. But $118 million dollars of new capacity? That’s, in part, what I was hired to do. And in the end, people should judge me on whether or not we put those resources to the right use, and that they actually feel a difference. I never said that we’re going to cure the problem. But I do know, and believe, that we can make the problem much, much better.
BETH RUYAK – How do you reach that goal of getting 2,000 people off the streets? You just said it’s going to take a few years, and we also have a generational problem that’s getting worse. How do you keep the problem from regenerating itself?
MAYOR STEINBERG – That may actually be the biggest challenge. I’m confident that with these resources and with the five elements – assertive outreach, case management, emergency shelter triage, mental health services, and permanent housing – that we can get thousands of people off the street. The more serious challenge may be: how do we prevent the next cohort of people from becoming homeless? We have to put as much emphasis on that. Part of it is affordable housing. We need to address the housing issue in this community. We need more supply, we need more affordability, and we’re working very hard on that as well. I recognize that the most pyrrhic of victories would be to get thousands of people off the street but to have the community not feel any better about what they’re feeling and they’re seeing. That wouldn’t be a great outcome, I recognize that.
BETH RUYAK – Or that these are one time grants, one time pots of money, and you can’t sustain the efforts that you put in place based on those funds.
MAYOR STEINBERG – No, that I’m not as worried about. The Mental Health Services Act is the one percent tax on million dollar earners. It has no sunset, it continues. And this Medicaid grant that the city received – again the only city in the state other than the City and County of San Francisco – that can be renewed as well. We’re in this for the long term. Part of it is the stigma. People, generally, are frustrated because they don’t believe it can get better. And I’m saying, this can get better if we are committed to a goal, and if we put the pieces together and gather the resources, and don’t give up on the problem. We won’t do that.
BETH RUYAK – I noted earlier that the anti-camping ordinance trial is going to the jury today. A technical question here: The plaintiffs are asking for a declaration and an injunction from the court to encourage the city to designate safe grounds for homeless people so that they don’t have to be afraid of being arrested. Does the establishment of the new winter shelter meet what would be in a declaration or an injunction?
MAYOR STEINBERG – Certainly, a warm shelter for 200 people, just off of Railroad Avenue – we just signed a lease to move forward on beginning December 1. You talk about immediate action, that’s immediate action before the winter actually hits. Of course, that meets the definition. But I also recognize that we need to do more, that 200 beds is not enough. The county has talked about opening emergency triage themselves, we urged them to move as quickly as possible. We’re looking at another several sites in South Sacramento. We are going to engage with the commercial broker community, the commercial property community, to look for other sites. We’re going after this.
MAYOR STEINBERG – Well, there were some issues with that site. You’re talking about the R.T. site. What we have said to the community is we want to show you that 24/7 triage where people are not coming and going can actually make the homeless problem better in North Sacramento. We want to show that can work and that’s true over the course of the first couple months of the winter, and then we will have the discussion about the R.T. site.
BETH RUYAK – So that’s still in possibility?
MAYOR STEINBERG – It’s still in possibility. But we want to prove our case first. That’s important.
BETH RUYAK – This has been so emotional for some people in the neighborhoods, and some people have said, “Why not choose a location near your own home?” You must know what this feels like.
MAYOR STEINBERG – I do understand, and by the way, I’m open, more than open, I believe in fair share. But we have to find sites where an owner is willing to allow this use, number one. Two, it needs to be large enough that we can handle the large number of people. So over time, I think people will see we’re not just talking about sheltering people and having them stay indefinitely and endlessly. We want to get them out of the shelters and into permanent housing with the support services they need so that they can end the cycle of homelessness, that’s the goal.
BETH RUYAK – New warming centers are going to open in District 2 and 3 on December 1. Your plan has been to have these warming centers open 24/7. Is that going to happen with centers this year?
MAYOR STEINBERG – The shelter that we’re talking about off Railroad Avenue is a 24/7 shelter. The warming centers were a good stopgap idea in my first month as mayor. But frankly, they’re just a stopgap because people had to leave at the beginning of the day. We want 24/7 triage shelter that isn’t indefinite, that gets people into permanent housing with the services they need. We’ll still have some warming centers.