Backers of a November ballot measure that would outlaw homeless encampments on public property in Sacramento say a recent report showing the county’s homeless population has soared to nearly 9,300 people is adding momentum to their campaign.
The record number is a 67% increase from three years ago, according to the 2022 Homeless Point-In-Time Count, a biennial report released last week. It coincides with the region’s housing affordability crisis and inadequate levels of homeless housing and emergency shelter.
Daniel Conway, who is leading the citywide ballot measure campaign, called the report “upsetting and disturbing” in one sense, but “fantastic for us from a campaign perspective.”
“The reality is all of our mail pieces and all of our online ads for the next six months are going to talk about the fact that Sacramento’s homeless crisis is worse than San Francisco,” Conway added.
Sacramento’s homeless population is now larger than San Francisco’s in raw numbers, though not on a per-capita basis.
Conway is chair of Sacramentans for Safe and Clean Streets and Parks, a business-backed coalition. He was chief-of-staff to former Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.
The citywide voter initiative is called the “Emergency Shelter and Enforcement Act of 2022.” The Sacramento City Council in April placed the measure on the ballot after Conway’s group gathered signatures for a similar but more aggressive ballot initiative, which the group later withdrew.
The measure that voters will consider requires the city to approve thousands of homeless shelter spaces and then make public camping illegal if a person rejects the offer of an available space. Sacramento’s roughly 1,100 shelter spaces are typically full and far short of what’s needed for the city’s homeless residents.
While concerns over the growing homeless population might drive support for the measure, some advocates for unhoused people say the initiative is bad public policy.
Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, said the city will be hard-pressed to deliver shelter that meets the complex needs of unhoused residents given the mandate to quickly approve spaces. It may resort to laying out “thousands of cots on hundreds of parking lots” to meet the requirement, he predicted.
The initiative requires the city to authorize shelter spaces for 60% of Sacramento’s “unsheltered residents,” who live on the street, in vehicles or abandoned buildings and account for nearly three quarters of the county’s overall homeless population. The city would have to approve 20% of that number in the first 90 days after voters approve the measure.
“We need real solutions, not just a knee-jerk ballot measure,” Erlenbusch added.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg voted to place the measure on the ballot, but calls it “imperfect.” He warned the plans put in motion by the initiative won’t succeed unless the county government is required to provide mental health and addiction treatment services at the new shelter sites.
“It’s only when we are all mutually obligated to provide shelter, housing and treatment that the numbers will get better,” Steinberg said, noting that only the county is equipped to provide those specialized services.
County considers similar changes
Patrick Kennedy, who sits on the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, said in February he would consider bringing a countywide initiative to the board to place on the November ballot — to complement the city measure. He still might do so, his chief-of-staff Keaton Riley said in an email last month.
Riley added that Kennedy first wants to see the final version of a proposed county encampment ordinance. If approved by the Board of Supervisors, that ordinance would ban homeless camps in certain parts of the unincorporated county, including near areas the county deems “critical infrastructure,” such as levees, police and fire stations, jails, hospitals and courthouses. It could also prohibit them in areas at risk of wildfire or floods, as well as outside overnight homeless shelters.
“If he feels that is not strong enough, he will be looking at a separate ordinance or a ballot measure,” Kennedy’s chief-of-staff wrote.
Regional business groups are expected to urge the board to pass a comprehensive encampment ordinance or place a similar measure on the countywide ballot. In a statement after the Point-In-Time Count results were published last week, Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce President & CEO Amanda Blackwood said the chamber expects the county “to adopt sheltering policies similar to what city voters will approve in November.”
“It's time to save our region and restore integrity and safety to our communities,” Blackwood continued, “while providing the critical mental health, rehabilitative and social services to the homeless population who are often facing inhumane circumstances.”
County supervisors are expected to consider the homeless encampment ordinance during a hearing on July 12.
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