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Sacramento: Falling Further Behind in Housing Justice

Written by Brian Davis on . Posted in Blog

The state capital for the most populous state in the union, Sacramento, has struggled with how to serve the large number of people living below the poverty level and able to afford basic housing for years; then the pandemic hit. Sacramento used federal dollars to purchase hotel/motel space during the pandemic, but these spaces were used mainly to deconcentrate the overflowing shelters as opposed to housing people without any shelter. Other cities were able to house those living outside a space in a motel room and successfully reduced the number of people living rough. Due to overwhelming demand and a lack of coordination/planning by the city, Sacramento has actually seen a rise in the outdoor population over the last year. In late January 2021, government inaction saw real consequences with as many as 6 people living outside losing their lives after a horrible wind storm hit the city. 

Sacramento, CA, has a relatively high poverty rate of 13.9% and a higher-than-average unemployment rate of 7.1%. The waiting list for a Housing Choice Voucher in Sacramento is typically 4 to 5 YEARS. According to the local ABC affiliate from April to December 2020, there were 4,600 calls to the social services helpline (3-1-1) about homeless people – up from 500 in 2015. Sacramento also has an extremely high cost for basic housing, pricing families and those working in the service sector out of the market. Further, the transportation system is not designed to bring workers into the area where jobs are located from lower rent areas of the community. 

The problem is that the situation in Sacramento, and many other cities across the country, was so out of control that when a deadly virus hit the emergency safety net crumbled. Because Sacramento had not sufficiently dealt with the housing emergency for decades, an already taxed system had no ability to stretch to serve new people seeking help.  The county was able to keep COVID deaths relatively low, compared to other similarly sized counties, but in order to do so, city services left a large number of people outside.  

Beginning in September 2020, the city began “public health” cleanups of the camp sites to avoid calling them law enforcement sweeps. I talked to Crystal Sanchez of the Sacramento Union of the Homeless, a local advocate who works tirelessly to keep in contact with those living outside. She has worked to get supplies, food, trash collection, port-a-potties, and mobile showers to those who are not able to stay indoors. Sanchez leads the local chapter of the National Union of the Homeless, a national movement that first started in 1985. Homeless advocates in Sacramento have formed a community for protection and to amplify their voices. They have appointed leaders in the encampments who then report to Sanchez any issues or problems they are facing.

Crystal Sanchez delivering supplies to those living outdoors.

The biggest frustration among those advocating for those outside is the “all talk and no action” among elected leaders. The addiction services and mental health system has been nearly unavailable to those without housing since the pandemic. Sanchez estimates around 11,000 people are on the streets at any one time with tents everywhere. Sanchez says that community opposition to bringing homeless people into hotels (based on fear and misinformation) has contributed to the rise in street homelessness – even when most hotels were sitting empty early on in the pandemic shutdown. Social workers are overwhelmed and still working remotely.  

Despite court fights and protests, and the CDC guidelines urging a pause in any sweeps during the pandemic, city officials have continued to displace those living outdoors. As in many cities, agencies from law enforcement to park rangers have been trashing what few possessions those who stay outside still have, and further displacing vulnerable and already displaced people. There is no one listening to the voices of those who are without housing. No one is addressing the high cost of housing or the pandemic related job losses. The problems faced by those without housing are only complicated by the pandemic. For example, when a homeless individual encounters law enforcement, it is highly likely that the police will “lose” the person’s identification when they are arrested. It is extremely difficult to replace identification when most government offices are shut down to visitors seeking services. While the city has done a good job in vaccinating the overall population against COVID, they really did not have special plans for the unique challenges of those without a residence living outside. There are still issues of shelter oversight, and things like overly restrictive shelter policies. There is a great deal of distrust of the social service system among advocates and those staying outside because of the lack of accountability built into the continuum of care. 

There are so many needs in Sacramento, but no one ever asks the people experiencing homelessness what those needs are and then goes about filling those gaps in services. Please read the below poem written by Crystal Sanchez expressing what she and her neighbors are experiencing:

Die In

by Crystal Sanchez
President of Sacramento Homeless Union/ SAC SOUP

Today I came out to my very conservative parents…… I became homeless
Today I was a victim of domestic violence…. I became homeless
Today my family member was murdered by law enforcement…….. I became homeless
Today I was assaulted…… I became homeless
Today my slumlord evicted me…….I became homeless

Today I lost my job……. I became homeless
Today I at 80 years old fell and broke my hip and won’t be home for 3 months ……..I will be homeless
Today I was involved in a fire I lost everything…… I became homeless
Today is the 11th month of a pandemic…… in which I became homeless
Today I locked the door for the last time in my small business which didn’t survive the pandemic …….I will become homeless

Today is the last day for the moratorium to pass for rent……. I may become homeless.
Today I was released from jail for a past mistake ………I became homeless.
Today I buried my spouse my children and …….I became homeless
Today a new policy came out to remove me…. Where do I go?…… I am homeless

Maybe today will be the day I connect to the right resources. It’s been 20 years I have done my due diligence the best I can …..and I can’t stay connected. 
Am I invisible? Can YOU see me? Can YOU hear me? Hello??? Can you help me PLEASE….. Why are you calling me names ?? Why are you throwing things at me?…. Don’t you understand, I’m just like you? NO wait please…. Don’t call the police….. What did I do? I’m sorry, I needed a place dry to rest… There is no where to go!…. Officer where can I go? Why are you taking all my things??….. It’s cold …..It is wet …..Please…. not my tent….He says move along….. The emptiness, the trauma and re enforced trauma….the fear… the wind and rain….. Darkness……it’s cold…God, please help me….

Today, like everyday, I  wasn’t accepted. I was rejected…. I am homeless
As we warned everyday….Today the weather dropped into dangerous numbers and today the streets took a life…it took my life …..The life of someone who once became homeless
Today I became a statistic….because I was homeless.

Today, I ask you comrades to raise your fists and continue this fight with us in solidarity with the 11,000 adults and 700+ kids unhoused neighbors who call the streets of Sacramento home.

Today, I asked you brothers and sisters to chant with me we will do the chants two times
Let us start with the first one.
I will say, 
“Too much cold too much heat”
You will say
“No more death on the street”

Second one
I will say: 
“What do we want?”

You will say,
“Housing”
I will say, 
“When do want it?”

You will say, 
“NOW MAY OUR UNHOUSED REST IN POWER AND MAY WE REMEMBER MOVEMENT MEANS MOVE. FORWARD TOGETHER NOT ONE STEP BACK!”

THANK YOU.
-Crystal Sanchez
President of Sacramento Homeless Union/ SAC SOUP

Unsung Hero: Dennis Ashton

Written by Brian Davis on . Posted in Blog

There are a few things I know for certain from my work life:

  1. Homelessness is a solvable problem.
  2. People who experience homelessness are stripped of their civil rights daily which is extremely demoralizing, and makes it that much harder to get back your stability.
  3. Pitchers should never be forced to bat in professional baseball.
  4. Dennis Ashton and Jim Schlecht of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) will always be there to help those struggling in Cleveland. 

Dennis came to the work helping people with government bureaucracy at one of the meal programs in Cleveland, showing particular prowess in getting people identification. He also volunteered overnight to stay at one of the winter shelters, a role that turned into a paid supervisory job. Then Dennis started doing outreach for the NEOCH. It was a part time position but he spent long hours driving around the streets of Cleveland looking for people who needed help or responding to concerned citizens who were worried about their neighbors living outside. 

Dennis Ashton checking on someone living outdoors in Cleveland.

The outreach system became more advanced in Cleveland with all the groups sitting at the same table on a regular basis to talk about strategies, housing options and the best approach with certain individuals in need of help.  They started to have real success getting to know everyone on the streets and building a trusting relationship, and then the pandemic hit. 

Dennis said that it “started out as if it was not real.” The overnight drop in center closed because of safety concerns.  The shelters started moving people out to try to de-concentrate and things began to look really bleak.  There was a ceremony to give out tents soon after the overnight drop in center closed at the church in hopes that the residents could make it on their own. The men and women were asking, “Where can we go with these tents?” Outreach staff were frustrated that all progress they had made over the last 7 years would be lost. It was decided then and there to try to put as many people as possible into hotels. The hotels were basically sitting empty and there were potentially hundreds who were going to be outside in the rainy spring of 2020. What started with just a few people and no money grew and grew. Private foundations and donors kicked in money to start this program under the leadership of NEOCH. Eventually, the County agreed to front the money for the hotels in order to de-concentrate the shelters until the federal CARES act funding was in place. Eventually, there were five hotels used with an additional space for families as well.  

The program was a huge success. Before the pandemic, it took time to build a relationship with those living outside and a great deal of coaxing to find the best solution for the individual to come inside.  Now, you could just drive to the campsite and say, “Who wants a motel room?” Then you would work with the person on their issues where you knew where they would be and they knew they were safe. The outdoor population went from a few hundred to a couple of dozen living rough in February 2021. It was difficult to move people into more stable housing because the system was mostly frozen for a year. There were very few evictions, no one was relocating out of their housing especially if there was a subsidy attached and nearly every permanent supportive housing unit was full in Cleveland. 

Dennis said it was a horrible year with many getting sick some of the more fragile died. But the federal relief for homeless individuals was successful in Cleveland because it started with a plan for safe private rooms inside. There were challenges with getting people identification and there were not nearly the number of volunteers helping with food or other supportive services that the system enjoyed before the pandemic. Getting food was never an issue for most because of the number of church based groups that served hot meals in Cleveland. All the places that afforded the opportunity for community shut down or were take out only. There were no Zoom meetings to check in with your friends that you saw at lunch every few days.

Dennis said that the local public hospital, MetroHealth, stepped up to provide testing and even sending nurses out to do health screenings. The Central Kitchen delivered food to all these hotels locally which was a huge escalation of their services. He said that all outreach were told not to transport people because of the safety of being in a car with someone potentially infected, but he just could not leave his friends out on the streets to tell them to walk the 3 or 4 miles to the hotel. Dennis said his biggest job was trying to keep people calm and not make them more scared than they already were. He worked from 6 a.m. until late at night trying to meet the needs of those without housing. Law enforcement were calling for outreach help more often and there were some sticky days when the curfew was in place and people who were outside were told to get inside or face a ticket for violating the statewide curfew. Dennis, the eternal optimist, said that everyone was doing the best they could over the last year. He said that unfortunately, the shelters have a bad reputation for a lot of people, and this hotel program gave everyone an option to go inside that we never had in the past. There were also so many people with special circumstances like pets that the system could finally help.  

Street Outreach during cold pandemic months.

In a crisis, there are people who really step up to meet the needs of their neighbors. Dennis Ashton of Cleveland, OH, is one of those unsung heroes in the local community. He went about his job getting people into housing during the pandemic without a lot of fanfare or assistance.  Overcoming the fear of infection while working to keep those on the streets informed and calm during this crisis is how Dennis went about his job.

There are many cities in the United States who could not figure out how to keep individuals experiencing homelessness safe or reduce the number of people staying outside during the pandemic. In my opinion, a large part of that is because they did not have a Dennis Ashton working in their communities. 

Ask Publix to take a stand against violence

Written by Brian Davis on . Posted in Action Alert

National Coalition for the Homeless Action Alert
Date: May 3, 2021
WHO: Todd Jones, CEO of Publix Supermarket Company
WHAT: Condemn the actions of Law Enforcement for beating a homeless man in your Miami Store

The National Coalition for the Homeless is calling on Todd Jones, CEO of Publix, to terminate the employment of Miami police officer and Publix security guard, Alexander Garcia Contreras, who was caught on video at your Miami Publix supermarket beating a homeless man, Willie Barber for the alleged crime of stealing a sandwich. We want the police officer fired from both Publix and from his day job in law enforcement and brought up on assault charges.  No one is above the law and no one should act as judge, jury and executioner especially in a matter of a $5 chicken sandwich. 

Publix officials have to be aware that because of the pandemic, there are lines of traffic waiting to get food in almost every city in America.  So many have lost their jobs and much of their income that food insecurity is a huge issue right now.  We can all agree that stealing is wrong, but it does not justify the disgusting display of violence released on that bystander video in the Miami Publix.  We are aware from local activists that Publix is often the first group willing to give during a natural disaster and are the backbone in many communities of the anti-hunger programs, which makes it all the more surprising that they have yet to publicly condemn the actions of the officer and to end his employment after 16 days. 

We are concerned that in the time of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Duante Wright that there was not better training around use of force in shoplifting cases.  We are concerned with the Publix hiring and monitoring of its security personnel considering the seven use of force incidents by Officer Contreras over the last five years.  We believe that corporations in South Florida might need to reconsider employing Miami Police Department in security positions if their officers are so quick to escalate a situation into a violent confrontation. 

NCH is asking the Publix CEO to condemn these actions, fire this officer and tell the public what actions they are taking to assure that this will not happen again.

Will they offer training to their security personnel? Will they look into the history of the use of force by the police officers in their employment?  Will they work to weed out racism from their security staff?  

We are asking all of our members to call the Communications Department of Publix with this simple message to deliver to Todd Jones CEO:

  1. Fire the law enforcement officer in that Miami Publix who beat Mr. Barber.
  2. Compensate Mr. Barber for his pain and suffering inflicted by this Publix security employee. 
  3. Implement an updated training message to all Publix employees that you will not tolerate a violent response to shoplifting, because it endangers the lives of customers and employees alike. 
  4. During the orientation process as well as on-going training modules that Publix will work to eliminate inherent bias and racist tendencies by all employees.  

Post on social media @Publix, or send a message to Maria Brous, Director of Communications for Publix, at 863-688-1188 x55339 or maria.brous@publix.com, and ask her to forward the message to Todd Jones.

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