We knew a major storm was coming. Why did we leave the homeless to suffer in the cold?
City and county officials did not open warming centers Tuesday night to shelter the homeless. BY RENÉE C. BYER
Homeless communities across Sacramento were ravaged Tuesday night and Sacramento leaders left them out in the elements even though virtually everyone knew one of the worst storms in years was bearing down on our region.
Downtown warming centers couldn’t be used to protect people from 60 mph winds due to useless Sacramento County rules enforced by useless Sacramento County officials. Mayor Darrell Steinberg and his Sacramento City Council colleagues were either too polite or too afraid they would be scolded by their county colleagues. So a stupid rule was followed while the homeless spent a night of terror bordering on cruelty.
This was so Sacramento, where no politician wanted to say anything remotely impolitic and no one was moved or had the guts to break the rules to prevent human suffering. By the time Steinberg lost his temper during a council meeting Tuesday night, it was too late.
Talk was cheap and so was human life.
People in makeshift tents and lean-tos were left to huddle behind fragile tents that were no match for destructive elements that swamped encampments as if they were on the fringes of Third World capitals. But they weren’t. They were in the heart of the capital of the most prosperous state of the U.S.
“(They were) scared to death,” said homeless activist Crystal Sanchez told The Sacramento Bee. Sanchez spoke of groups of homeless people sending her frantic messages from Tuesday night to dawn on Wednesday.
“I don’t know even how we are going to help them all.”
Half-naked people reportedly shivered and trembled in the cold. Entire camps were blown away or inundated by water and falling debris as the wind howled like an animal seeking prey.
Thanks to Sacramento’s inaction and everlasting shame, Tuesday’s storms found easy prey, helpless prey, and no one did a damned thing until too late.
So let’s get it straight: Tuesday Jan. 26, 2021 should be remembered as a day of utter shame for our city and county. These two entities share a large portion of the blame for a comprehensive collapse in leadership. It resulted in the capital of California, the nerve center of state politics, proving it had no bloody clue how to protect the most vulnerable among us on the worst night in years.
But this was no one-off catastrophe. It didn’t happen by accident and responsibility does not rest solely with the with the city and county. It also belongs to every suburban city in the county. It belongs to us, the residents of Sacramento, who have proved time and again that we don’t care as much about homelessness as we say we do.
WE ALL SHOULDER BLAME
I can point fingers, and I will, but I must hold myself accountable first.
In years past, I wrote ignorant columns on homelessness because I was moved by a pervasive feeling shared widely by my Sacramento neighbors. It’s a feeling about homelessness that can be distilled down to simple phrases:
Get it out of my face. I don’t want to see it. Make the cops deal with it.
Those feelings lead Sacramento residents fiercely to oppose any and all shelters proposed by city leaders. It’s always a fight. It always takes longer than it should. The costs of shelters and supportive housing are obscene. And even when you get people housed, more homeless people proliferate.
Based on 30 years of living here and writing extensively about homelessness, I’m left with the sinking feeling that too many of us don’t really care about the issue until it becomes a nuisance for us or until we can point a finger at someone else for the problem.
Every NIMBY and ignorant bystander who simply wants the problem gone shares some blame for what happened. If we could have moved faster to build more shelters before the COVID-19 pandemic, when Sacramento was booming, fewer people would have suffered Tuesday night.
We should all be ashamed.
WHERE IS SACRAMENTO COUNTY’S HELP?
And the government entity that should feel the most shame is the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, along with the bureaucrats in Sacramento County. The county oversees the largest pots of money for housing and mental health funding and yet the discussion on homelessness always centers on the city.
The county badly handled how to spend $181 million federal COVID-19 relief money. The county is currently led by Supervisor Sue Frost, who is a champ at voting against relief for distressed renters whenever she can. The county government is the entity recently run by people such as CEO Nav Gill, who appeared to undermine the efforts of Supervisors Phil Serna and Patrick Kennedy when they tried to cooperate with the city on homelessness in 2017.
Serna and Kennedy excoriated Gill and his staff for seemingly slow-walking their efforts to forge a multi-million dollar partnership on homelessness. Yet despite this, when it came time to let Gill go, Kennedy was the decisive third vote to keep him around until he was placed on paid leave last November amid misconduct allegations levied against him by several leading women in county health departments.
All this has been evident and publicized. And yet only recently, after so much damage has been done, did advocates turn attention toward demanding more of Sacramento County officials who have so much more to say about homelessness, housing, mental health and drug treatment.
For example: Where is the scrutiny of county officials approving bloated budgets for Sheriff Scott Jones when health services don’t get enough? Where is the public in holding Frost and all the supervisors accountable for their role in creating conditions that led to Tuesday’s shameful abandonment of homeless people in such wretched conditions?
The city cannot be the only answer to homelessness in Sacramento.
And even then, with the exception of Sacramento City Councilmen Jay Schenirer, Jeff Harris and former Councilman Steve Hansen, not enough of the longtime council members have done enough before now. By Wednesday, everyone was scurrying around as if what happened on Tuesday was a terrible surprise. It couldn’t have been.
THIS IS NOT STEINBERG’S FAULT
Steinberg can be faulted for not declaring a state of emergency to open downtown warming centers as he did Wednesday, after the damage had been done. That’s on him and everyone else on the council.
To be fair, Steinberg has done more on homelessness than any other politician in Sacramento in recent years. He was never able to forge a regional effort on homelessness. He said he couldn’t find willing partners. Others said he was too hard to work with.
OK, but Steinberg’s predecessor, Kevin Johnson, wasn’t able to do it either. The urgency on homelessness is felt most acutely in the city and by people such as Steinberg. Leaders in other cities seem fine with having the City of Sacramento deal with it.
Steinberg also doesn’t have as much power as people think he does.
Steinberg tried to strengthen the power of his office last November via Measure A, the initiative that would have given him authority currently in the hands of City Manager Howard Chan. It was roundly defeated, including with the help of many progressives.
Ask yourself this: How did this old system of government work in Sacramento on Tuesday?
Chan, who is not elected, runs the city government and reports to all nine council members.
How did that work? It didn’t. Am I saying passing Measure A would have prevented Tuesday night? No. I’m saying, people in Sacramento don’t want anyone to have too much power. Getting things done takes time in Sacramento and people like that.
But that contributed to leaving homeless people exposed on Tuesday. It did. It was one element in an across-the-board failure.
“I haven’t stopped crying,” said newly elected City Councilwoman Katie Valenzuela, . “A woman died here last night and we knew for five days that this storm is coming.”
To her credit, and in a sign that Valenzuela could prove to be a heartfelt and welcome addition to the council, she held herself accountable.
“I don’t know if I can blame any one person, “ she said. “I wish I had pushed harder for a meeting before Tuesday. We have plenty of folks who could have helped us get in contact with people (on the streets).”
I’m with Valenzuela. I wish I had done more a lot sooner.
Steinberg says he hopes Tuesday will be a turning point, a shock that will change attitudes in our community.
“Maybe the fever is broken,” he said.
Maybe people will stop fighting shelters and realize we have to do more on permanent supportive housing, safe camping, safe parking lots. If they can’t open Golden 1 Center to the un-housed, maybe big Sacramento businesses such as the Kings can use their money and influence to help more people get housing.
Maybe citizens will start demanding that Sacramento County and other communities do much more on homelessness.
Maybe our community will act in order to prevent more suffering made possible by our inaction.