When you drive into the City of Sacramento on I-5 going north, you are greeted by a massive water tower at the city limits bearing two designations. Sacramento, the city proudly boasts, is the “City of Trees” and “America’s Farm to Fork Capital.”
Read a newspaper or walk around downtown these days, and it’s clear the city has earned a third designation – City of Problems.
Sacramento’s homeless problem has grown worse than ever before. Walk around PRI’s offices in Midtown and you’ll be greeted by frustrated individuals with varying degrees of illness or addiction while trying to pass down grime-filled sidewalks and get around tent encampments.
You may not realize it, but Sacramento’s homeless problem is one of the nation’s worst. Homeless grew to about 9,300 in the 2022 Sacramento County point in time homeless count measurement, which was a 67 percent increase over the 2019 figures. Last year, the number of homeless in Sacramento was found to be even higher than San Francisco’s count.
Frustrated residents are expecting action and strong leadership from city officials to address the problem, but all there seems to be are press conferences and soundbites.
Though the city has enacted ordinances prohibiting camping on sidewalks, the city isn’t really enforcing its own laws. In a recent council vote, Mayor Darrell Steinberg ceded his leadership on homeless to the city manager, empowering his office to enforce the city’s anti-homeless ordinances.
Sacramento County District Attorney Thien Ho has had enough of the city’s inaction. He sent a letter to Sacramento’s city attorney demanding enforcement of the law within 30 days, or else he will take legal action against the city. In the city’s response to Ho, the city attorney admitted that the mayor had not directed law enforcement to enforce the anti-camping ordinance.
Ho told the Sacramento Bee that, “these laws were passed for a reason to encourage people to accept services, to get people into certain areas where they’re not affecting the public safety of the rest of the community and themselves, and yet the city has done absolutely nothing under this administration.”
Ho’s comments echo PRI’s work on the potential for homeless courts to be an incentive to prod the homeless, using the threat of jail time as a stick to make life changing decisions about their situation.
Steinberg and city officials would be well served to read PRI’s work on homelessness. If they did, they’d learn that state government’s current approach to homelessness, just throwing more money at the problem as we’re doing with the state’s Project Homekey initiative, isn’t working. In Los Angeles, government is building so-called affordable housing units for over $800,000 per unit in one project, yet the number of homeless continues to grow in the state despite this spending.
On PRI’s Next Round podcast, we introduced listeners to Paul Cho, the CEO of LifeArk, and organization that has designed rotationally molded homes for the homeless. As PRI’s Rowena Itchon wrote of the program, “the goal of its 18-unit pilot program in El Monte is to build independent living among formerly homeless people and connect them to community-based health care, treatment, and job training services — all in housing units that cost a fraction of what the City of Los Angles spends.” Reforming state environmental laws and regulations is also key to lowering the costs of building new housing.
In their books and studies, PRI’s Kerry Jackson and Wayne Winegarden argue that government should be relying on the efforts of private charities to get the homeless the help they need. Programs we’ve profiled like the Orange County Rescue Mission and Father Joe’s Villages in San Diego can do a far better job of addressing the individual needs of the homeless than any government program. They also argue that government should reject the failed Housing First approach that fails to resolve problems like addiction and mental health that cause many to become homeless.
It’s clear what little is being done today in Sacramento isn’t working. Residents should not expect much improvement unless city officials follow the demands of Ho and actually start enforcing the law.
Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute’s vice president of marketing and communications.