The Sacramento region could open more than 600 tiny homes for unhoused residents over the next year, including 350 promised by Governor Gavin Newsom last week, with the goal of moving people from illegal encampments to safe but temporary shelter.
Elected leaders and some advocates for people experiencing homelessness say the shed-sized structures offer a stable respite while people search for a permanent place to live. The homes can be set up faster and cheaper than traditional housing and offer a stopgap that responds to the urgency of the growing crisis, they say.
But as the region prepares to open a half dozen tiny home communities in coming months, at the cost of tens of millions of dollars, questions remain about how well this new approach will work, including whether unhoused residents will embrace it.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg says the 350 new shelters will be offered to people living in encampments along the W/X corridor, which runs parallel to Highway 50 in the central city, and to people camped along the American River Parkway. Some homes could open at Cal Expo by this fall, according to the governor.
Meanwhile, plans are moving forward for an additional 300 tiny homes at county-run sites in South Sacramento and North Highlands.
But in interviews this week, a half dozen unhoused residents said they’d rather stay in their tents than live in a community that restricts their movements or curtails other habits, as would be the case at the government-run camps.
“It’d be like living in prison,” said Jeff Sharpe, 52, who lives in a tent just south of the freeway. “I’ve already lived in prison. … You can’t get out.”
Jeff Sharpe, 52, lives in a tent near X Street. He says unhoused residents have more freedom on the street and likely would reject the offer of a tiny home.Chris Nichols / CapRadio
Jacob Lashey, 27, who lives in a nearby tent said the tiny homes could offer stability and even a path toward sobriety. But, he said, he likely won’t go.
“Not if they’re going to tell me what I can and can’t use,” said Lashey, who said he struggles with addiction. “I’ll probably stick it out and try to do my own thing. … I’d rather not waste anybody’s time.”
The city and county have policies allowing people to enter some shelters without being drug tested, but prohibit use onsite.
Joseph Gray interacts with unhoused residents everyday through his work picking up trash at encampments along the W/X corridor for the Downtown Streets team. He’s also unhoused and lives in his car.
Joseph Gray, 65, picks up trash at encampments on the W/X corridor for the Downtown Streets Team. Gray, who lives in his car, says he believes most unhoused residents would reject an offer to live at a tiny home community.Chris Nichols / CapRadio
The 65-year-old says the tiny homes will help “people that want to get off the streets. But the fact is most of them don’t want to get off of the street.”
Gray says he likely won’t accept an offer, either, because he doesn’t want “to be crowded around other people.”
Building a community ‘with respect and dignity’
Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, said he believes people on the street will eventually accept the tiny homes because they “are a step up no matter how you look at it.”
Given this year’s unrelenting rain and wind storms, “I think people will be happy to come inside,” he added.
But for the shelter programs to be effective, Erlenbusch said they must focus on fostering a community — something some unhoused residents say they already have at their encampments. After moving into a shelter, some return to their old camps because there’s nothing to do but sit inside their tiny home, several unhoused residents said.
“I totally understand people saying ‘I’m not going [to try the shelter] if I’m not going to be treated with respect and dignity,’” Erlenbusch said.
“That needs to be built into the program.”
Erlenbusch said each should provide basic amenities such as climate controls inside the homes and bathrooms and showers onsite. But organizers should also build community centers and basketball courts, allow participants to cook and socialize together and participate in decision-making. They should ensure groups of encampment residents who know and get along with one another are placed together at the tiny home community, he said.
Lashey, the X Street encampment resident, said organizers need to remember “homeless people are still people.” Though the tiny homes might not work for him, the Sacramento-native said he believes the stability “would change everybody’s life if they really made the choice to go in there.”
What are the advantages of tiny homes?
Cities from Los Angeles to San Jose to Redding have opened tiny homes in response to California’s surging homeless population. Supporters say the hard-sided structures are safer than tents, can open quickly and could save lives.
During a January storm in Sacramento, two unhoused residents were killed in separate incidents when trees fell on their tents. During another powerful atmospheric river in January 2021, at least two homeless residents, including a woman sleeping in a tent downtown, were killed as winds approaching 70 miles per hour lashed out across the region.
Local advocates say they know tiny homes won’t solve homelessness alone. But they’re “a good place to start,” said Angela Hassell, executive director at Sacramento Loaves & Fishes, which provides survival gear to unhoused residents.
“Ideally, they aren't going to just fall down or get shredded in a windstorm or a rainstorm,” Hassell said. “They're going to offer some more safety and security and a private space for folks to kind of take a breath and then move into some of the other healing arenas.”
Two years ago, Sacramento city leaders hailed plans to establish 20 new homeless shelters to serve 3,600 people, including several outdoor sanctioned tent encampments known as “safe grounds.” But a year later, the plan fizzled out. The city closed its safe ground campsite near Southside Park and eventually swapped out tents for trailers at its other outdoor site at Miller Park. Officials said concerns over safety, cost, community opposition and a shift toward funding affordable housing ultimately led them to abandon the comprehensive plan.
Empty sleeping cabins at Florin Rd. and Power Inn Rd. in Sacramento County on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023.Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
Still, officials say there’s more work ahead. The city and county signed a Homeless Services Partnership Agreement in December with the goal of confronting the region’s crisis together. The deal commits the county to opening up to 600 new homeless shelter beds, including hundreds of tiny home beds. It also requires the local governments to form joint city-county outreach teams to visit encampments.
“It’s not the city alone anymore,” Steinberg explained this month at Cal Expo, where Newsom announced plans to provide 1,200 tiny homes statewide. “We need the county, not only for operating but for the services. The mental health and substance abuse services.”
Sacramento County’s plans call for case management staff to work onsite at the tiny home communities. They would help guests access documents needed to secure benefits and housing, while behavioral health staff would provide mental health and addiction assessments and referrals. The plans also call for security personnel to check people in and out of the communities.
How helpful are tiny homes at ending homelessness?
It’s hard to say how effective Sacramento’s tiny home communities will be at bringing people off the streets and helping them find permanent housing. Sacramento hasn’t opened any large-scale sites yet. But results at a small tiny home community, the city’s first to open, appear promising.
Known as Emergency Bridge Housing at Grove Avenue, the site includes 24 sleeping cabins for homeless young adults ages 18 to 24. It opened in June 2020 near the St. Paul Church of God in Christ in North Sacramento.
So far, it’s been “really successful,” said Erlenbusch with the regional homelessness coalition. He credited the program’s design, large homes and amenities for helping many young adults transition to housing.
A report on the program’s website shows more than half the guests, 166 out of 293, found housing in the most recent project year. Of those, 91 secured permanent housing, 68 found transitional or temporary housing and 17 were institutionalized, which can include foster care, a substance use treatment center, hospital, jail or prison.
Results in two Bay Area counties are somewhat less encouraging. A recent analysis by The Mercury News showed people moving out of tiny homes in Alameda County failed to find permanent housing nearly 75% of the time from 2019 to 2022. In Santa Clara County, people failed to find permanent housing more than 50% of the time, the analysis found.
But the Mercury News found the tiny home communities offered more services and helped a larger percentage of people find permanent housing than traditional homeless shelters.
It also found the tiny home programs cost more. Given increased spending on homelessness at state and local levels, some have called for more cost-effective solutions.
Wayne Winegarden, a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, a free-market think tank based in Pasadena, says it would be less expensive per bed to build traditional shelters instead of tiny homes.
“From the numbers I’ve seen, it just seems like the tiny home approach is much less cost-effective,” Winegarden said, adding that private organizations such as the Sacramento charity St. John’s Program for Real Change is a model for building and operating shelters for less money.
Sacramento County has approved more than $50 million to build and provide services for three tiny home communities over the past year. Altogether, the sites will include approximately 300 small shelters, offering space for one or two people each.
“Often the government, which is very good at collecting money and very good at dispersing money, is not very good at running programs,” Winegarden added.
Steinberg disagreed. “The tiny home proposal … is the essence of thinking more efficiently about housing. And, frankly, we need a lot more of it,” the mayor said this week. “The problem we have with housing, especially affordable housing in the state, is that it’s too expensive and it takes too long to build.”
The mayor said he welcomes private sector involvement, especially if anyone has a vacant building or warehouse to help with the cause.
Here’s where Sacramento’s tiny homes will be located
- Cal Expo: officials say some of the 350 homes provided by the Newsom administration will be placed at the state fairgrounds while additional locations will be made public. It’s also unknown which portion of Cal Expo will be used. Newsom estimated the state will spend $30 million to purchase 1,200 tiny homes for communities across California, including Sacramento, the Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego. He said the shelters should open by this fall.
- Florin and Power Inn roads: Sacramento County plans to open a 100-unit tiny home community at this South Sacramento location by late spring. The county announced the $7.6 million project in April 2022 but design changes, material delays and permitting work have slowed it down.
- East Parkway: This summer, the county expects to open 45 additional tiny homes, or “sleeping cabins,” at 7001 East Parkway near Highway 99, also in South Sacramento. The county approved $3.7 million to build and operate the shelter community.
- Watt Avenue: This North Highlands warehouse location near Myrtle Avenue would be Sacramento County’s largest tiny home community, with 140 cabins and 50 spaces for people living in vehicles. The site’s design is still underway for the $40 million project and no opening date has been announced. Once it opens, officials hope to offer spaces to people living in encampments along nearby Roseville Road.
Contact CapRadio reporter Chris Nichols at [email protected]
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