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.
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:
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”
I will say:
“What do we want?”
You will say,
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!”
President of Sacramento Homeless Union/ SAC SOUP