Homes for the homeless

Jeff vonKaenel

Recently sworn in Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg has a lot of ideas. He’s like an 8-year-old boy, walking down the aisles at Toys R Us, making an ever-expanding list of things that he wants for Christmas. But Steinberg is planning to give all the toys to kids less fortunate than himself.

He’s been proposing job development, youth programs, bringing back neighborhood policing, protecting Sacramento’s status as a sanctuary city, government transparency, a high school internship program, the planetarium at the Powerhouse Science Center, riverfront development, and, last but not least, he proposes building 2,000 housing units with supportive services to help end homelessness in the Sacramento region. Wow.

Steinberg’s vision is government at is finest. Visionary. Brilliant. If a third of what he hopes to do actually happens, he will successfully transform the Sacramento region. I am excited about the incredible energy he brings to the job.

We have to remember, though, that while the mayor of Sacramento has a wonderful bully pulpit to proclaim a vision, he will have very little power or money to implement it. The city budget’s discretionary money goes mainly to the police and fire departments. There is certainly not enough revenue to accomplish Steinberg’s goal of building 2,000 units of supportive housing. I haven’t seen estimates, but I estimate that at $100,000 per unit, it would cost $200 million. While it could be paid over time, that’s still a big number. And then we need to pay for supportive services as well.

It’s an expensive vision. Steinberg hopes to receive some money from the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency and some money from Proposition 63 (the Mental Health Services Act, which he authored), but I doubt this will be enough.

Currently, the district attorney, the police chief and the sheriff routinely arrest and incarcerate homeless individuals, many of whom have mental health issues. These individuals, while in jail, receive little or no mental health treatment. They are then often released in worse condition than when they arrived, only to repeat the experience multiple times.

The current system of jailing individuals suffering from mental health problems is not only inhumane, it is also fiscally disastrous. Providing housing with supportive services is much less expensive than putting people in jail.

It also makes no sense to have homeless people using emergency rooms and staying in the hospital when the HMOs that provide healthcare through MediCal could better provide services to people in supportive housing.

To solve these problems, we will need a regional effort for which surrounding cities, hospitals, health insurance companies and law enforcement all come together to help end homelessness.

This is a tall order. Cities like Roseville and Folsom will need to significantly increase their efforts to aid supportive housing. We will need to overcome neighborhood resistance to having any supportive housing near their homes. I’d also hope that business owners who are impacted daily by the homeless population could pitch in to support Steinberg’s plan.

Our community spends enough money to build these units. But we are spending that money in the wrong places. Building 2,000 units of supportive housing would be a wonderful present for Sacramento. We need to come together and support Steinberg’s vision.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.