California Homeless Crisis Grows As State Is Reluctant To Use Powerful Law
Along the banks of the American River, adjacent to the Highway 160 bridge in Sacramento, reside a few dozen homeless men and drifters. Nylon tents sprawl across the grass. In one of them lived Kevin Moore and Ray Sletto, whose bodies were found on the afternoon of Jan. 17.
The two men were the closest of friends for more than 10 years, taking care of each other and Baby Girl, the pit bull mix they adopted. Kevin Moore, 38, was a jeweler with a goatee and an easy smile and Ray Sletto, 44, sleepy-eyed and mustachioed, was a chef with a bad back. They had been homeless for many years after losing their jobs. Though the weather was mild, they enclosed their tent within another tent for extra warmth and lit a small camp stove. As the fumes quietly filled the air while they slept, they died of carbon monoxide poisoning sometime during the night of Jan. 16.
Just slightly more than a mile away from where Moore and Sletto's tent stood is the state capitol building in Sacramento. Four days before they died, lawmakers from around the state met to discuss the crisis of homelessness in their communities. Over one-fifth of homeless Americans live in the streets, park and shelters of California, which has been hit hard by the lingering effects of the recent recession, from high unemployment to rising foreclosure rates. California's tally in 2011 was estimated at 135,928, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Across the country, women and children are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population, the alliance says. And shelters across the state have only enough beds for a small fraction of the dispossessed: The St. John's Shelter for Women and Children in Sacramento turns away hundreds of people each night for this reason and leaves them to fend for themselves.
But one of the state's most powerful tools to assist this vulnerable population is hardly being used. Buried within California's legal codes is a 25-year-old statute that allows counties and municipalities to declare a state of emergency when a "significant number" of homeless people exist in a community, allowing them to convert public facilities into shelters and even to change zoning codes to site shelters in most neighborhoods.
Yet since the law was passed in 1987 -- and as the homeless population increased -- few communities have invoked the statute, and when they do, it is almost always just to set up temporary winter shelters. As a result of a lack of political will, neighborhood resistance and budget constraints, this law has rarely been tapped to ease the suffering of the dispossessed.
"It is almost unparalleled in its potential," National Coalition for the Homeless executive director Neil Donovan said about the statute. "But it's a challenge [for California] because of the financial crisis that they're in. Other communities use similar statutes far more effectively. I'm thinking of Boston, which opens up its armories when overcrowding happens."
The reluctance to take action frustrates advocates for homeless people. "It's a very powerful statute in the sense that once a shelter crisis has been declared -- it could be done on a statewide level by the governor or on a county level -- there are just about no restrictions to housing the homeless anywhere," said civil liberties lawyer Mark Merin. "But there are very few instances where it has been invoked. Any mayor or board of supervisors which has not declared a shelter crisis should be asked, Why not?"
NUMBER OF SHELTERS CALLED 'WOEFULLY INADEQUATE'
Shelters across the state from San Diego to Siskiyou are filled to capacity, and the number of homeless people without any shelter has increased 4 percent in the last two years, prompting churches in many communities to open their doors. In Sacramento alone, 25 congregations trade off nights to take in 120 people from the streets. For the estimated 21,000 homeless people in Orange County, only three shelters with 400 beds are available.
The lack of shelters can result in deadly consequences. Last month three middle-aged homeless men in Orange County were stabbed to death while sleeping on the streets by an alleged serial killer. "If there had been enough shelters, they wouldn't be dead," said Dwight Smith, who runs Isaiah House, the Catholic Worker shelter in the county. The number of available emergency shelter beds is "woefully inadequate compared to Orange County's need," according to the county's 10-year plan to end homelessness.
Napa County and the city of Long Beach recently passed resolutions declaring a shelter crisis and suspending certain zoning ordinances but they apply only to the winter months and expire in March or April. The city of Los Angeles has cited the statute to establish permanent year-round shelters but they can handle just 2,000 of the city's estimated homeless population of 82,000.
"We need long-term shelters that are open year-round, every day," asserted state Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, who chairs the Select Committee on Homelessness. The shelter crisis statute is not invoked for a variety of reasons, from the practical to the personal, she said. For one thing, public facilities must be available; many are already in use. In addition, sufficient resources have to be attainable in an era of shrinking budgets. "When you use a facility for emergency shelter, you have to have the services to back it up such as food, showers, bathrooms, 24/7 security," she said.
Even with sufficient resources and space, the political will and community support have to be in place, said Atkins, who noted the struggle that arises each year when her San Diego district considers setting up an emergency winter shelter. "Sometimes it's NIMBYism, and other times it's about the character of a community and people having concerns about folks with mental health issues or addiction problems in their neighborhood."
The lack of political will can partly be traced to changing federal priorities, turning from the creation of emergency shelters toward the procurement of permanent housing. "When Congress discovered that 70 cents of every dollar were used for support services and 30 cents for housing, they wanted to change that," Donovan said. "Obviously, permanent supportive housing is vital to ending homelessness. But the way the funding would work, you'd get 10 percent of the homeless population in housing. As a result, the safety net for the remaining 90 percent is beyond frayed."
Housing and shelters should not be competing priorities, said Joan Burke, advocacy director of Sacramento-based Loaves & Fishes. "When you have a declared emergency and people are dying in the streets, you should act quickly to shelter them. To focus too much on housing is like a hospital saying, 'We need a cardiac unit.' Yeah, of course, but you can't sacrifice the ER to do that."
On Jan. 12, Atkins and members of her Select Committee on Homelessness met in the Capitol building to discuss their goals for the year, such as restoring funding for the operation of emergency shelters -- something included just once in the last five budget years. Just a few days later and about a mile away, Moore and Sletto passed away in their sleep.
"Those stories are excrutiating," Atkins said. "While we're grappling with policy at the highest levels, there is a lot on the ground that we need to be doing."
Not much can be done without adequate funding, however, and California's fiscal crisis has pushed homelessness to the bottom of the priorities list. "Every state-funded program that supports homeless shelters has been eliminated in California," said Cate Steane, executive director of the Family Emergency Shelter Coalition. "We're not just providing a place for them to stay, but a path out of homelessness. And without that support, we're turning more and more to the public for contributions. If you want to be a community where children being homeless is not tolerated, then individuals and businesses have to step up and provide the means."
SACRAMENTO'S STRUGGLE TO FIND SAFE GROUND
Sacramento has become ground zero for California's shelter crisis in some ways. Though the size of its homeless population pales in comparison to that of Los Angeles and San Francisco, the city's high foreclosure rate has pushed hundreds of people into the streets and into the backseats of their cars. A succession of tent cities has sprouted in the city, with scores sleeping in tents and makeshift shelters along the banks of the American River.
When the first tent city appeared in Sacramento in 2009, a crew from Oprah Winfrey's television show arrived to film the drama. Mayor Kevin Johnson vowed to build a permanent tent city, saying, "We've tried to sweep the homeless under the rug, and it's been our dirty little secret for far too long." (He has won praise for his sincere commitment to the problem; the city has reduced the level of chronic homelessness by half in the last four years, officials say.)
But since then, the number of homeless women and children has increased, and Sacramento's share of federal stimulus money to use for shelters has run out. And inhabitants of a smaller Tent City II were evicted last year three days after Christmas by police who arrested and subsequently released a person with a medical condition. The eviction was relatively peaceful, but the police did have pepperball guns at their disposal, according to an "Incident Action Plan" obtained by The Huffington Post.
Just last week, the homeless campers who live along the American River gained an important new ally: United Nations special rapporteur Catarina de Albuquerque. After visiting Sacramento last year on a fact-finding mission to a set of U.S. cities, including Boston and Washington, D.C., she sent a tough letter to Mayor Johnson, demanding that homeless people be provided proper sanitation and drinking water. She also complained about the "criminalization of life-sustaining behaviors of homeless persons in public spaces, such as sleeping, camping or public urination and defecation, in a context of lack of adequate shelter alternatives."
"No one is more frustrated than me by the lack of progress in fully addressing our homelessness challenges," wrote Mayor Johnson, through a spokesman, in an email addressing that letter. "Our community has made unprecedented strides in the past few years, but there's more we need to do. We welcome the additional support as we collectively work to ensure a brighter future for all of Sacramento's homeless."
Federal stimulus funds have enabled Sacramento to build at least 2,300 units of transition housing but with those funds drying up, the city is relying on a patchwork of temporary solutions from motel vouchers to agreements with the Salvation Army and local churches. When the county decided a year and a half ago that it could no longer operate homeless programs, Mayor Johnson and community groups devised a plan to set up a nonprofit, Sacramento Steps Forward, that would take over the administration of all the homeless programs, but it is still in transition.
Sacramento City Councilmember Jay Schenirer is preparing to invoke the shelter crisis statute to get a shelter in his district, he said, adding that he is acutely aware of the need to build community support and to win over fellow City Council members. "I have a site and I'm going door to door to talk to the neighbors," he said.
"Before I do anything, I want to get the OK from them," Schenirer said. "I'm willing to do this but my colleagues may not have the will. I have to get 5-6 votes on the council." The mayor's spokesman says that Johnson is open to looking at such options.
It's up to community leaders and homeless advocates to communicate the urgency of the problem, Schenirer said. "There is a general perception of the 'homeless' and who they are and we haven't done a good job of putting faces to these individuals who could be you or me."
The increase in homeless families is of particular urgency for advocates. At one point, the St. John's Shelter Program for Women and Children, the only facility focused exclusively on this vulnerable population, was turning away 320 people a day. "It's a terrible situation; we'd encourage them to try to find friends and family until room opens up at the shelter," said the program's executive director, Michele Steeb. "Those with cars sometimes sleep in them, and others sleep in abandoned buildings." Several years ago, she begged -- and finally convinced -- the fire department to allow her to increase her program's capacity from 100 to 112 people.
By the American River, some homeless people returned in January to the site of Tent City II. Liz Green and her goddaughter regularly serve them food. Green, 57, started feeding homeless people after years of running a Help U Sell discount real estate brokerage that specialized in foreclosures and short sales, she said. Green pays for the food by cashing her unemployment check, she said.
On Jan. 31, she showed up at a City Council meeting bearing large photos of Moore and Sletto, whom she had befriended while handing out meals near their campsite. "These deaths were so preventable, but our City Council can't get it together, and two lives were lost," she told HuffPost. "These deaths happened because we failed as a community, as a society, to help these people."
She complained that the city, which used to budget almost a million dollars for homeless programs, spent $800,000 on a 56-foot 10,000-pound aluminum rabbit artwork that greets travelers at Sacramento International Airport.
Loaves & Fishes set up a memorial wall for Sletto and Moore in Friendship Park so that their lives would not be forgotten. "They were so grateful for everything," volunteer Jim Peth said. "Ray had just gotten his disability check for a possible apartment and surgery for his back. And things were looking up."
Barbra Baker, who was homeless for nearly two years from 2008 to 2010, has seen several of her friends die in the last few years, she said. "It gets to us; we know these people," she said, sighing. "Kevin and Ray stayed at our house the Thursday before they passed. And then all of a sudden, they're gone. I still can't believe it."