Michael Grant has a housing voucher that should give him access to affordable living in Sacramento.
Instead, the 45-year-old journeyman painter says he lives in a homeless shelter.
“If I tell somebody that I have [a voucher], they look at me like I’m a low-life instantly,” said Grant who was walking near Capitol Park. “That’s why I decided to go to the shelters.”
Grant was among the thousands of Sacramento County residents experiencing homelessness who were interviewed last week as part of the 2022 Point-In-Time (PIT) count. The biennial two-night survey produces an estimate for the number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people in communities across the nation.
The count’s overall estimate for homeless people in Sacramento County will be published in a report this spring — and the stakes are high.
The final number will help determine how much funding local agencies receive from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for homeless shelters, housing and other services. It will also be a marker that tells the region whether the homelessness crisis is improving or getting worse.
Sacramento County’s most recent count in 2019 found more than 5,500 people were homeless, a 19% increase over two years. The survey is organized by the nonprofit Sacramento Steps Forward and usually takes place every two years but was canceled last year due to the pandemic.
“Sometimes people are maybe… stuck.”
Wearing reflective vests and carrying flashlights, hundreds of volunteers spread out across the county to conduct this year’s count on the last week of February — on two of the coldest days in the year so far.
Over the course of two hours, one group of volunteers encountered about a dozen homeless residents in the central city, fewer than on a warmer night. They found mostly middle-aged men, camped at parks, near stores or parking lots. Some declined the survey, though most agreed to it. All were counted.
Volunteers asked their age, race, ethnicity, marital status, how long they’d been homeless and whether mental illness, drug or alcohol use had contributed to their circumstances.
Many described broken homes and broken relationships, along with chronic health issues.
Mark Dias, 36, told the group he’d been homeless most of his adult life after he spent his childhood in foster care. He said he doesn’t think it’s possible to eliminate homelessness.
“Sometimes people are maybe, like, broken at moments in their life, where mentally or emotionally they get kind of, like, stuck,” Dias said.
Others talked about their jobs or careers and severed family relationships.
Mark Oden, 63, said he spent four decades in the trucking industry before an injury contributed to him landing on the streets. He said he now questions his own mental health after spending the past 11 years without a permanent home.
“There are a lot of people out here who are homeless who do have diminished mental faculties and they need to be handled a certain way,” Oden said, standing in a Safeway parking lot in Midtown. “But not everyone is like that. Some people are competent.”
Some said they’re grateful to at least have a temporary place to call home.
Grant, the journeyman painter, said he’s been living at the X Street Navigation Center near Alhambra Boulevard.
“I feel fortunate to be in there really because it’s so cold,” Grant said of the shelter. “I just got in there a few days ago. Previous to that, I was in a tent for nine months. Or the sidewalk, and then I got a tent.”
Not an exact science
Local officials and community advocates expect this year’s survey will show another significant spike in the homeless population despite the region’s efforts to house and shelter people. They blame the area’s extreme lack of affordable housing and the economic and health effects of the pandemic.
Over the past two years, city officials have addressed the crisis by opening indoor homeless shelters in Meadowview and near Oak Park, along with three safe ground outdoor shelters, which offer a legal place for unhoused people to camp or park.
But advocates say help isn’t coming fast enough, something officials say is due to layers of bureaucratic red tape, neighborhood opposition to homeless shelters and sometimes a lack of political will.
Despite Sacramento City Council passing a comprehensive homelesseness strategy last August, the city has opened only one indoor shelter and one safe ground camping site since. Both have opened in the central city. The ambitious blueprint calls for adding thousands of temporary shelter spaces — from tiny homes to respite centers to safe camping and parking sites — at 20 locations citywide.
While the PIT count attempts to measure Sacramento’s crisis, it’s not an exact science and it won’t by itself lead to faster change. The surveys leave out the so-called hidden homeless — people living in motels, abandoned buildings, couch surfing or hard to find places outdoors. But the local count does include estimates for homeless people living on the street, in shelters, tent encampments, vehicles and along riverbanks.
At a kick-off event before the survey, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg urged volunteers to not only count the region’s homeless, but to find ways to help them once the survey is over.
“I am haunted by the question: ‘What are we going to do tomorrow and the next day and the day after?’” Steinberg said. “We know what the survey’s going to show over these next couple of nights: The numbers are higher and the problem is worse.”
During the count, several volunteers said the nighttime effort was their way to connect with people on the streets — to ensure they don’t become hardened to the emergency.
“Why should I be comfortable when people are living in this cold weather?” said Nancy Conk, who spent three decades working in the affordable housing field. “I think everybody deserves a roof over their head and a safe place to live.”
Steve Graham, a retiree who lives in Land Park, echoed that sentiment: “I’m amazed at how it’s become okay to walk by people who are laying on the sidewalk. And we’ve become desensitized to that.”
Organizers of the count say it not only builds empathy but also knocks down false stereotypes about homeless people.
“One of the things we learned in the 2019 count is we asked folks where they’re from and 92% of folks said they’re from Sacramento,” said Arturo Baiocchi, an associate professor of social work at Sacramento State, who helps analyze the survey results.
“And that really challenged, I think, people’s misperceptions thinking that it’s folks from somewhere else coming in.”
Approximately 700 volunteers took part in this year’s count, canvassing neighborhoods in Sacramento, Elk Grove, Folsom and Rancho Cordova.
Researchers from Sacramento State will work with Sacramento Steps Forward to produce a comprehensive report on the survey’s findings.
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