Faced with a $200 million deficit accumulated over the past five years, Sacramento, Calif., like many other struggling municipalities, is severely cutting back.
In the span of less than a year, California's capital has cut public workers, closed public facilities, and now is contemplating a plan to liquidate public assets to hold on to its NBA team.
But the city's mayor is coming under fire for one money-saving cutback that a United Nations human rights observer says is a likely violation of international human rights treaties. Earlier this month, the U.N. took the rare step of issuing a public letter to Sacramento's mayor declaring conditions for the city's homeless unacceptable.
The problem: In an effort to save money last year, city officials declined to fix about 50 broken water fountains and installed automatic locks on some park restroom doors. The locks activate at 10 p.m., leaving many of the nearly 1,000 homeless people who can't find space in the city's shelters with no reliable overnight access to water or restrooms.
City staff also installed automated locks on restrooms near a homeless encampment where about 100 people sleep each night because of concerns about people using the park after hours to party, said Amy Williams, a city spokeswoman. Hoping to prevent a permanent tent city, Sacramento officials will not let nonprofit agencies bring drinking water, portable restrooms or trash pick-up services to the homeless encampment.
Catarina de Albuquerque, a U.N. special rapporteur on safe drinking water and sanitation, visited Sacramento late last year and issued a scathing report detailing the difficulties homeless individuals have meeting their basic biological needs in one of the most developed countries in the world. She could not be reached for comment.
While some cities, such as Portland, Ore., and Seattle, Wash., have identified sanctioned, rotating spaces for tent cities and allowed organizations to provide sanitation services, many others have launched regular raids at homeless encampments. Advocates for the homeless say that in cities around the country, being poor and without a home has effectively become a crime.
In Sacramento, advocates for the homeless and city officials alike insist that progress has been made. The city's most recent homeless count revealed that the number of people who have no place to live dropped nearly 16 percent since 2009 to 2,358 people.
Sacramento Steps Forward, a public-private partnership, helped about 700 homeless families move into permanent housing, assisted nearly 500 more connect with emergency shelter, and built 75 long-term housing units for homeless individuals in 2011. The agency worked with about $4 million in federal funds and $2 million in city dollars.
"Sacramento has done a great job at working toward ending homelessness,” said Ben Burton, executive director of Sacramento Steps Forward.
But Sacramento has also trimmed its direct spending on the homeless. In 2010, the city spent about $4.37 million on homeless services. This year, that figure is about $2.56 million. In the last 30 days, two homeless men died of carbon monoxide poisoning while sleeping in a tent, and a third man died of hypothermia, said Steve Watters, executive director of Safe Ground, a Sacramento nonprofit founded by homeless individuals after a 2009 tent city police raid.
"It's really a question of priorities and whether this city will decide that meeting the basic biological needs of human beings is more important than some other things in the budget that haven't been touched," Watters said.
Watters declined to name specific projects that could be cut. The city has eliminated more than 1,200 government jobs, including police positions, in the last two years. But Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson has also proposed selling the city's parking spaces to a private company for $200 million, about half the cost of an NBA arena the city hopes to build.
The real solution, Watters said, lies in a California law that allows cities and counties to declare a state of emergency and convert public facilities into homeless shelters. Since the law passed in 1987, few communities have invoked the statute, The Huffington Post reported earlier this month.
City officials have not decided how to respond to the U.N. observer's letter, Williams said. Johnson told the local newspaper this month that he would not oppose an effort to create a tent city with water and restrooms. Such a move would require city council approval.