Not counting families and young people, approximately 1,000 individuals are outside in the elements every night in Sacramento. That means 36 percent of the homeless population cannot find shelter due to the woeful lack of shelter beds in the city.
Five city codes criminalize standing, sitting and resting in public places; three criminalize camping and lodging in public places; and three criminalize begging and panhandling.
When homeless people are arrested and put in jail, things happen to exacerbate their homeless situation. Besides the inherent stress of being in jail, they often have the few but essential belongings they are forced to carry with them confiscated. They can permanently lose property, from cars (where they may have been sleeping/living,) and clothing, to tents, stoves or medication they need on a daily basis. They also face fines they cannot pay which put them further into debt.
The Sacramento City Council recently turned down a moratorium that homeless people and advocates had been asking for: to put a hold on its anti-camping ordinance until enough affordable housing units have been created in the region. They also asked for protection of homeless people’s property seized by law enforcement.
The Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness (SRCEH) Civil Rights Committee found inaccuracies in the City’s published justification for its decision to deny the moratorium. In their “Fact Checking the City’s Response to Homeless Protesters” (a protest in front of city hall has been ongoing for months), Bob Erlenbusch, head of SRCEH, said most of the city’s responses contained falsehoods or were, at best, misleading. One such was that Sacramento has “many” rentals in the open market that homeless people can secure. The current vacancy rate is 2 percent in the city. That is considered a “very tight market,” Erlenbusch says.
SRCEH further notes that in September of 2015, 50,000 people applied for a Housing Choice Voucher (formerly known as the federal Section 8 program). Only 8,000, or 16 percent, received vouchers.
In addition, Wind Youth Services of Sacramento reported that they had a waiting list of 100 young people for their emergency overnight shelter. While the non-profit Sacramento Steps Forward counted only 240 homeless youth in the city in 2015, Wind Youth Services saw 918 unduplicated young people at their drop-in center last year.
SRCEH also said 12,000 homeless students were identified in the Sacramento Unified School system in 2015.
The shortage of low-income housing in the city and region already makes it difficult for homeless individuals, couples, families and young people to find any type of housing. When they are jailed for being outside or committing a minor crime, they emerge with a criminal record. Then it is well nigh impossible for them to find a place to live. A criminal record or tickets for camping make it even harder to access the housing and other programs designed to help them.
In a complaint filed with the Department of Justice, SRCEH asks that the court conduct a full investigation into the “pattern and practice” of harassment of homeless citizens by law enforcement. This includes police, sheriff’s personnel, park rangers, light rail police and private security.
Erlenbusch says it is hoped that the City of Sacramento will come into compliance with the federal Department of Justice ruling that anti-camping ordinances constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” and violate the 8th Amendment of the Constitution.
Sacramento City Councilman Jay Schenirer is going this month with a delegation of homeless advocates to Seattle to hear how that city created a homeless state of emergency while the city assesses the fundamental causes of homelessness such as “low income, funding cuts and institutional racism.”
Schenirer has already told fellow council members that he feels it is time to have an open conversation about the challenge and “to be open to ideas and suggestions that might be politically unpopular.”
Rachel Brown is jittery today. She sits in the Family Promise Day Center with one eye on her children who are playing nearby. She is feeling nervous because this afternoon she will go for a job interview. Rachel is half African-American (she mentions that her father was the first black attorney in Vallejo) and half Cuban. She is going for a position as a Cuban-English translator.
Rachel, 32, and her husband lived for a long time in San Jose but became homeless in Sacramento. Her husband was a Bay Area limousine driver whose car, through no fault of his own, caught on fire on a bridge. He was able to save four of his passengers but five of them died. Even though he wasn’t culpable, he was fired from his job. He started going to therapy. Rachel says he has a lot of anxiety surrounding the accident, so much so that he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and has had a hard time at subsequent jobs.
A common story when people are struggling to maintain jobs, the couple got behind in payments. They lost their Sacramento dwelling and paid to stay in motels because they couldn’t save enough to rent an apartment. They called Next Move Shelter but were unable to get in. When they called Family Promise Rachel says “one of the ladies did an intake over the phone. The next morning they took us in. November 11th. We have been here all through the holidays and they really took good care of us.”
The parents and their children, 9 and 6, go each evening to their lodging in the church that is sheltering and feeding families in the Family Promise rotation system.
Rachel’s husband is working now and Rachel hopes to be at a job soon too. Since they have been part of Family Promise, they have saved some money but they have $1,095 to pay back to make up for their eviction and get the debt cleared off their credit report. “Here they help us with resources. They tell you people you need to contact and send out faxes for you,” Rachel says. “I can get phone calls here too. It is probably the best family shelter here in Sacramento. All the pictures on these walls are success stories.
“But you have to be willing,” she says. “You have to do your footwork.”
Family Promise wants to keep families together and solvent. Marsha Spell, executive director of Family Promise of Sacramento, says she is seeing more and more families desperate for housing, people who have found themselves on the streets because they could not make the rent. Calls from people wanting to be taken into the program are averaging about 115 a month.
The non-profit, one of 187 affiliates in the country, guides families toward lasting independence. “The problem of poverty is complex,” says their website. “It won’t yield to a simple solution or quick fix.” For the past 10 years, the local Family Promise has approached the problem by meeting immediate needs but also by helping alleviate the root causes of their clients’ poverty.
Spell describes her 90-day program: Families are taken into their center and assigned a case manager to work with. Children go to school and parents who are not employed are required to spend their time investigating five jobs a day. Staff helps develop budgets, stressing that rent, food and utilities come first with extras after that. They also look at ongoing expenses people may have, like storage costs, car payments and insurance. “And do they have parking tickets or speeding tickets they didn’t pay,” says Spell. “We want them to address it all, moving forward, with nothing to hold them back.”
There is help with emotional setbacks as well. Family Promise offers marital counseling and anger management courses, to mention a few.
Families use the day center for laundry, showers, telephoning, and researching and sending out resumes on computers. There is a child play area and adults who have not gone to work do chores. In the evening, Family Promise transports everyone to a church host. Churches who participate rotate the family night care once a week. Each family is given a room and meals. Currently 16 churches are a part of the local Family Promise. The faiths included are Catholic, Jewish, United Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Latter Day Saints and non-denominational.
“Each family is different. We focus on families we can help the quickest,” she says. “Most families have been evicted. The next landlord then wants two and a half times the rent to get into the building. So families get motel rooms by the month and run out of money the third week. The motels do not give them a break. The no-tells are the worst. They charge $325 a week at least.
“They could get a good apartment for that much a month but they can’t muster the deposit. So then they usually go from family members’ to friends’ homes couch surfing, but there is limit to that.
“The most common thing we see is that people do not know how to get started again,” Spell says. “They may not have had parents who taught them life skills. They may never have balanced a bank statement or know how to budget themselves. If they get behind in car payments, they might just ignore them so they don’t have to think about the problem.
“We hold them to it while we show them what they have to do to make it work. One family went out to eat at Joe’s Crab Shack and spent over $100. Another was paying $125 for a gym membership. We steer them back to basics. Most of our graduates make it when they leave,” she says proudly. “Many have stayed in contact.”
One hundred and seventy-three families that have graduated in 10 years, 31 this year. That is a national high within the Family Promise system.
Family Promise receives no federal or state monies. “That’s a huge thing,” Spell says. “We are totally dependent on donors and grants. We are not a rich non-profit.” Like their families, “we have to watch every penny.”
Spell never seems to rest. She manages estate sales on the weekends, ferreting out cars, furniture and household supplies she can give to the families. “We get 35 percent of the proceeds. Sometimes we sell cars right on the spot, or when families are moving out, we find out if cars are available.”
She says it takes about $15,000 a month to run the program. Since the 2008 crash, donations have gone down. “But we have just picked up a couple of grants,” she says. “We have to constantly work to keep the numbers up.”
Gentrification: a general term for the arrival of wealthier people in an existing urban district, a related increase in rents and property values, and changes in the district’s character and culture. The term is often used negatively, suggesting the displacement of poor communities by rich outsiders.
Every year the National Low Income Housing Coalition puts out figures that relate to housing and wages, that is the wage a person must earn to afford rentals in communities across the country.
The report, called “Out of Reach” is appropriately titled. For at least the last 20 years, the crisis of unaffordable housing has been growing so that even renters with adequate jobs who think of themselves as middle class are finding themselves in trouble, and low income and extremely low-income renters are forced out onto the streets.
About this displacement, the Sacramento Housing Alliance says “our neighbors, friends and loved ones are making decisions that no one should ever have to make to pay rent—like going without medical and dental care, nutritional foods and adequate child care.
So when is a rental house/apartment considered affordable? Most guidelines say:
a. When an individual or family can pay for it out of their monthly income and still have enough money left for food, clothing, transportation and health care.
b. When the rent and utilities cost no more than 30 percent of the household income. However, this means that a family of four with two working parents earning the minimum wage can only afford $700 in rent or mortgage payment and utilities.
Sacramento’s growing population is creating a demand for rental housing that is not being met. Rents are rising. What was a short time ago an average of $1,021 for a two-bedroom apartment has popped up to around $1,369 a month, according to the online real estate data base Zillow.com. Senior citizens on social security, people receiving unemployment insurance and people with disabilities receiving SSI are but a few of the population who are staring impossible rents in the face.
It is looking grim even for working families. If you take the recent statistic of what was considered fair market rent in Sacramento ($1,021 for a two-bedroom apartment), the affordable rent and utilities without paying more than 30 percent of income on housing, a household must earn an annual salary of $40,840. In California the minimum wage workers earns $8 an hour. To afford the fair market rental for two bedrooms, a minimum wage earner must work 100 hours a week for 52 weeks a year.
Compounding the unavailability problem is Sacramento County’s recent decision to change an ordinance that required developers to include housing for low income and extremely low income people to be built in their future developments. Now developers pay fees into a housing trust for poor people en lieu of building more affordable housing.
And, it looks as though the city will soon enact a similar ordinance revision.
Carol White, a social worker with Family Promise of Sacramento, says families she sees are recently displaced and homeless predominantly because either their landlord has decided to sell their dwelling and has evicted them, or they have been living with others who then move out and they cannot make the rent.
“When you have been evicted from other places, it a big problem in terms of renting anything else. Most of the families we see all seem to have one or two evictions of this nature,” White says.
Family Promise is a non-profit group of approximately 13 Sacramento area church congregations who rotate hosting families at night in their churches and feeding them a warm dinner. During the day, they provide a center in the Loaves and Fishes complex to help them find housing and solutions to problems blocking permanent independence.
Director of the Sacramento Housing Alliance Darryl Rutherford says the calls to his office from desperate people who are finding it impossible to rent a place to live are increasing. “Rents are what the market will bear. Couple this with the low minimum wage, housing is getting out of reach for a lot of people,” he says. The median rent in Sacramento has increased 13 percent over the past year, he says.
Another issue is the proposed development for Sacramento’s downtown area, Rutherford says. “Soon it will be catering to the few elite and ultimately shove the working poor out to the fringes.”
He says people will either move to where they can afford to rent or make do somehow. He is hearing of families doubling and tripling up in rentals and still having a hard time making ends meet.
Rutherford says that with the gentrification of downtown, a lot of small businesses that are not included in the economic development plan will be displaced as well. “Sacramento is definitely not going to meet its goals for sustainability. One can appreciate the focus on redevelopment of downtown but it should be with a minimum impact on the people there.
“You lose a lot of the fiber of the community, all the social connections of the neighborhood, when you drive people out to create condos, boutique hotels (as is the case of the Marshall Hotel on 7th Street which has been a 90-room single room occupancy hotel for low income people) and large hotels.”
“People are not seeing the larger picture in the need for affordable housing. They think it is for ‘those people’—the homeless or extremely poor. They do not think about themselves as being low income. If only more people would understand that we are fighting for the working class.”
A recent article in the Sacramento Bee quoted neighbors of the Loaves & Fishes’ Friendship Park area, where there are plans to expand homeless care facilities, as saying they were afraid that more people will be drawn to their part of Sacramento and cause sanitation and petty crime problems. But with the rapid displacement of people from ever more expensive places to live, a surge in homeless, near homeless, poor, and low income workers searching for cheaper housing is already a fait accompli.
Director of Counseling Programs Tommi Avicolli Mecca at the Housing Rights Commission of San Francisco says right now that city is seeing an epidemic of evictions in working class neighborhoods. “There is a mass exodus of poor and working class people. They are being forced to leave the city or become homeless.”
He says real estate speculators are coming from around the world and availing themselves of the Ellis Act to buy cheap rent control buildings, then evicting tenants. The Ellis Act provides loopholes for landlords in selling their buildings and circumventing municipal rent control provisions like San Francisco’s.
Avicolli Mecca says the new landlords typically divide up or re-rent the spaces for an astronomical fee. “Then we are seeing lots of condos being built. There is a need for affordable housing but the city is not paying attention here either.
“So now you have SROs turned into Air B&Bs or tourist rooms sold for tons of money by the night. We are no longer housing poor people in SROs.
“I live in a city that is supposed to be filled with the most compassionate, understanding and caring people in the world, I see a constant abuse of the homeless and displacement of the working class. Plus we are losing diversity. The African American population is down from 21 to 6 percent and Latinos and LGBT people are being pushed out of the Mission, particularly young people. The Castro is losing older gay men, some of whom have AIDS. Upscale tech types are moving into all these neighborhoods.”
Avicolli Mecca calls San Francisco “a war zone” with working class and strong communities being pushed out. “We are becoming a city of the rich.”
And the poor are going elsewhere. A flood of displaced people coming to the Sacramento area certainly is imminent if people do comparative shopping. A family in the San Francisco Mission’s upscaled buildings will have to earn $30,000 a month to afford their $10,000 a month apartment. In the Castro, the rents for newcomers will soon go as high as $8,500 a month.
“If San Francisco is not dealing with these problems in a caring and compassionate way, I don’t know how anyone can,” he says.
Nationally, says Out of Reach, the 2014 two-bedroom housing wage was $18.92, more than two and a half times the federal minimum wage, and 52 percent higher than it was in 2000. In no state can a full-time minimum wage worker afford a one-bedroom or a two-bedroom rental at Housing and Urban Development-estimated fair market rent.
In December, the National Low Income Housing Coalition urged policy-makers to raise the federal minimum wage and combat income inequality. They also have pushed for funding of the National Housing Trust Fund to build, preserve and rehabilitate rental homes that are affordable for extremely low and very low-income households. “The shortage of affordable housing must be addressed. Expanding the supply of affordable rental homes dedicated to the lowest income renters is a critical and fundamental part of any real solution,“ says the coalition.
“In both rural and urban America, renters are affected by the affordable housing shortage and rents are expected to continue to rise in coming years as the demand grows. Over half of all renters (53 percent) are cost burdened, paying over 30 percent of their income for housing, up from 12 percent” a decade ago.
“The lack of decent housing affordable to low income households has remained a pervasive national issue for over 25 years, affecting every single community across the United States.”
This link to a great article in The New York Times was sent to me by Signe Lindell, a Santa Fe city councilwoman whom I know. In New Mexico Tent City, a Glimmer of HopeAlso would like to invite you to participate in the Go Fund Me campaign for the Taos Men’s Shelter that I have written about in previous posts. http://www.gofundme.com/taos-mens-shelter Please share these links with friends who might be interested. There are some handy buttons to do so below. You might also like:
A bright spot this new year is that the Taos Men’s Shelter has moved to its new location. The building was moved Dec. 26 in the snow and cold. “Now all we need is electricity, water, sewage and flooring,” reports Executive Director Jeff Sattler.
The new site was prepped and foundation poured in mid-December. The shelter will house about 20 men per night when it opens. Taos temperatures have been dipping down below zero at night lately but thanks to donations and kindly innkeepers, most homeless men and women have been able to stay in warm motel rooms.
The new director of the men’s shelter in Taos, New Mexico, arrived from Connecticut to find that the shelter was temporarily closed and would be re-established at another location. Part of the trial-by-fire job when Jeff Sattler first landed was to find motel, hotel or other rooms for the men until the shelter reopens (possibly after Christmas). The last time the Taos Men’s Shelter closed down because someone torched the building, one of the men who had nowhere to go lost all his toes in the minus degree weather.
In a recent op-ed piece for the Taos News, Sattler tries to dispel some of myths associated with homelessness.
1. Homelessness is only about middle-aged men.
For many, the word “homeless” conjures up images of scraggly men standing on street corners holding cardboard signs. The face of homelessness is changing. In fact, the fastest growing segments of the homeless population are women and families with children.
2. Homeless people need to “just get a job”.
Getting a job is a challenge for most people in these days, and incredibly difficult for a homeless person. Most lack clean clothes, showers, transportation, a permanent address and phone number. Others have a criminal past, learning disabilities and lack of education that holds them down. Even if they find work, their low income often cannot sustain them.
3. Homeless people are dangerous.
Homelessness is often associated with drugs, alcohol, violence and crime. So yes, life on the streets can be perilous for homeless men and women. But very few crimes are committed by homeless people against those of us who try to help them.
4. Homeless people are lazy.
Surviving on the street takes more work than we realize. Homeless men and women are often sleep-deprived, cold, wet, and sick. Their minds, hearts and bodies are exhausted. Though help is available, they may have no idea where to begin navigating the maze of social service agencies and bureaucracy. With no transportation and little money, they can spend all day getting to food and maybe an appointment before they need to search for a safe place to sleep. And they do this while lugging their precious few possessions along with them in a bag or backpack. It is not a life of ease.
5. People are homeless by choice.
No one starts life with a goal of becoming homeless. People lose jobs and then housing. Women run away to the street to escape domestic violence. Many people have experienced significant trauma and simply cannot cope with life. Others struggle with mental illness, depression or post-traumatic stress. Yes, poor choices can contribute to homelessness. But outside circumstances strongly influence those choices.
6. If homeless people wanted to, they could pull themselves out of it.
Once a man or woman loses a job or a home, getting those things back can feel nearly impossible. Imagine trying to get a job when you have no address to put on a resume, no phone number, no shower and no clean-pressed clothes. Often, things like legal issues, criminal history, mental illness, physical and emotional health hinder progress even more.
7. Providing food and shelter only enables people to remain homeless.
Food and shelter are essentials for life. By offering these and other outreach services, like restrooms and mail service, we build relationships with people in need. Then we’re able to offer them something more through our recovery programs, like counseling, addiction recovery, emotional healing, spiritual guidance, education, life skills and job training.
8. If we provide sufficient affordable housing, homelessness will end.
Putting a roof over the head of a deeply hurting person will not heal emotional wounds, break addiction, create relational stability or establish healthy life skills. Housing can help people who are homeless due to poverty. But it can be a shallow and temporary solution for the many people who are homeless because they are unable to function in a “normal” life.
9. Homelessness will never happen to me.
Talk to the hundreds of homeless men and women we serve each day and they’ll tell you that they never intended or expected to become homeless. They’ve had solid jobs, houses and families. But at some point, life fell apart. They are desperate for a way back home.
10. Homelessness will never end.
Many U.S. cities have established ambitious goals with 10-year plans to end homelessness. While these plans to provide housing and better centralized services to homeless people are important in reducing the scope and duration of homelessness, they will not completely eliminate it everywhere for all time. But homelessness does end—one life at a time. With your help, we continue to restore the lives of hurting men, women and children every day.
“When we go to bear witness to life on the streets, we’re offering ourselves. Not blankets, not food, not clothing, just ourselves.”
Bernie Glassman Roshi
Founder of Zen Peacemakers Order
Russell Delman, founder of the Embodied Life School, has announced that he and others in his movement will join in a street retreat as a way of expanding the usual Zen practice of meditating in a cloistered setting. The model was originated by Bernie Glassman Roshi who thought that living in an insecure manner would be illuminating for his students and give them a chance to experience their practice in an outside world context. There will be similar street retreats in cities around the world.
Delman said his group will be on the streets of San Francisco Dec. 17-20. While participants will not suffer the angst of not having a home to go back to after the retreat is over, they will live like and with homeless street people for those four days and nights. They will sleep outside, ask for money for food, move around as homeless people must every day, and search for places where they are allowed to go to the bathroom.
“A street retreat is a unique opportunity for students of meditation to experience one’s connection to all of life,” Delman said. “We know we will be ignored, shunned and dependent on the kindness of others.
“This is a living meditation where we have the opportunity to put into practice our beliefs…of everyday life into a larger context. We hold a mirror to who we think we are.”
Delman just completed a seminar at Santa Sabina retreat center in San Rafael, CA. The three main components of the seminars he gives in various places in the world are embodied mediation, Feldenkrais movement lessons and guided inquiry. In embodied meditation, participants strive to bring their presence to thoughts, feelings and sensations that arise from moment to moment.
Feldenkrais movement lessons are a unique neurologically based approach to eliminating ineffective habits of standing, breathing, sitting and walking, as well as unconscious contractions due to stress reactions.
Guided inquiry is the study of physical and mental habits, belief structures, relational patterns and communication patterns. The body is viewed as a vehicle through which the entire human being and one’s relationship to life can be explored.
I am editing the upcoming book House Keys Not Handcuffs by Paul Boden, a former homeless man and 30-year advocate for homeless and poor people in the San Francisco Bay Area. (His story is included in my book, Finding Home: How Americans Prevail in the “Outsider Insights” section.)
Paul started the Coalition on Homelessness after he witnessed the inability of local and federal governments to deal with ever-growing homelessness. He now is head of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, a group of California programs that works together toward creating housing for those without shelter and putting an end to mass poverty.
His book gives organizing tips to others who would like to begin advocacy organizations or groups. We follow the pitfalls he has skirted throughout the years and see what concerns activists should be alert to as they plan to help others in an efficient and generally successful manner.
Bob Prentice has written the introduction to House Keys. He was formerly director of the San Francisco Public Health Division and founded the Bay Area Health Inequities Initiative, a collaborative formed to transform public health practices and eliminate inequities, and to create healthy communities.
The book contains artwork that embodies homeless and poor people’s struggles and other civil rights efforts during the 30-year period Boden addresses. Artist Art Hazelwood, famous for his artwork in this genre, adds a detailed history of art that has been created to accompany justice movements and publications in San Francisco.
Boden’s book is due out in October. He will speak at the Howard Zinn Bookfest (billed “a celebration of subversive books”) in San Francisco on Nov. 15 and at landmark City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco (co-founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti) on Nov. 18.