A matter of life and death

Hundreds of homeless people in Sacramento are living in encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson)

Essay: A call for racial equity and money as more homeless people are dying on Sacramento’s streets

By Bob Erlenbusch

The Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness just released our sixth annual homeless deaths report. Sadly, the number increased from 132 in 2018 to 138 in 2019.

The findings are very compelling, but it is important to humanize these statistics. First and foremost, we are talking about our unhoused neighbors—someone’s mom, dad, brother or sister. We are talking about 138 people, more than 90% of whom either were born in our county or have lived here a long time.

Homelessness takes about 25% off the life expectancy of a homeless person; for men, the average age of death is 51, but it’s only 48 for women. Shockingly, the proportion of female deaths has doubled in Sacramento County—from an average of 13.5% between 2002 and 2015 to 26% in 2019. Equally compelling, a disproportionate 45% of homeless deaths last year were people of color, nearly two-thirds of them Black people.

Overall, alcohol and drugs was the leading cause of death, accounting for 43%. Of those deaths, eight out of 10 were linked to meth; meth intoxication deaths have increased from 4% of all deaths between 2002 and 2014 to 31% in 2019. Violence was the second leading cause of death, accounting for 30%. Most involved blunt force head injuries, but other homeless individuals died from gunshots, stabbing, drowning and hanging.

We put our report just before the City Council is scheduled to decide next Tuesday, Aug. 18 how to spend about $20 million of federal COVID-19 relief money on homelessness.

Our coalition has important recommendations to help save homeless lives. First, the city should set aside $10 million to create a “Renter Protection Fund” to prevent more homelessness. Soon, the state moratorium on evictions will end, which could create a human tsunami of homelessness.

We also urge the City Council to immediately implement the “safe parking” pilot projects it approved in 2019 for homeless individuals living in vehicles. We urge the council to move beyond the city’s new partnership with WellSpace Health to provide a safe place to sober up and fund a robust drug treatment on demand program, a proven best practice. Finally, the city and county need to create more shelters and affordable housing for homeless women, which have been woefully underfunded in the past.

But the council’s actions on Tuesday are only first steps.

The city should set aside $10 million to create a “Renter Protection Fund” to prevent more homelessness. Soon, the state moratorium on evictions will end, which could create a human tsunami of homelessness.

Bob Erlenbusch is executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness.

It is imperative that the community address systemic racism and advance racial equity. Our coalition calls on Sacramento Steps Forward—working in partnership with the city, county and a broad set of stakeholders—to convene a committee to draft recommendations that address racism, discrimination and unconscious bias. People of color must be included in designing all aspects of programs and policies to make sure they meet the needs of all they are intended to serve.

Finally, the city must immediately implement the $100 million Affordable Housing Trust Fund that the council approved in January. It was to be funded by a combination of Measure U and state housing money, but was put on hold by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, more than ever, we need to finally create affordable housing at the scale necessary to end homelessness. It is a matter of life and death.

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2 Comments on "A matter of life and death"

  1. You can’t throw money at the problem. It takes actual effort from the ground up.

  2. Your efforts don’t treat the underlying problem. Homeless don’t die simply because they don’t have a home. They die because they they are either addicted to drugs and alcohol and/or they have mental issues. Simply putting a roof over their head will not stop the inevitable result – an untimely death. You need to treat the underlying addiction and mental health issues. However, Liberals are at an impasse for this as effective treatment for either will require treatment against their free will. If you are not enabling cities to do involuntary institutionalization, you are not solving anything.

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