Sacramento Self-Help Housing imploded, but a cadre of individuals was determined that no one would become homeless over it
By Scott Thomas Anderson
Jeremy Baird remembers the moment when it looked like everything that he’d worked for over a decade was about to evaporate.
A veteran manager for Sacramento Self-Help Housing, one of the region’s most active nonprofits dedicated to keeping people off the streets, Baird was seeing signs in 2022 that the management above him was in disarray — and steering his organization straight toward bankruptcy.
And that had dire implications that went beyond him and his coworkers.
Founded more than 22 years ago, Sacramento Self-Help Housing grew from a scrappy, bantam operation rooted in noble intentions to an institutional lynchpin in the region’s battle against homelessness. By the time Baird saw ominous clouds on the horizon, it had a multi-million dollar budget and was almost considered too big to fail.
But failing it was.
That meant the various contracts SSHH had to shelter formerly homeless individuals in multiple cities and two counties were also unbuckling. And in June 2023, the organization would completely shutter as a result.
“We had gone from an agency of 12 full-time employees to 200 at the end,” Baird recalls. “Once we were in trouble, there were close to 700 people who were residing in our residences, and all of them were in imminent danger of being homeless because of our bankruptcy.”
One of the main housing elements that was crumbling along with SSHH was its Scattered Site Shelter Program under the umbrella of Sacramento County. That effort involved SSHH leasing single-family homes where four-to-five struggling tenants could live in makeshift family situations that were tailored to their needs.
Not only was this rare approach considered a model for getting local landlords involved in the fight against homelessness — and doing so in a way that made business sense for them — but the scattered sites were also creating small micro-communities that appeared to be effective at keeping formerly homeless individuals flourishing in ways that other rehousing options were not.
Now, those people with roofs above their heads because of the program constituted something deeply personal to Baird, especially since he’d been managing the scattered sites since their inception six years before.
But it was all about to go up in smoke. It seemed nearly inevitable to Baird that some 90 people he knew within that program would end up inside tents again, or sleeping along creek banks or crowding with their belongings under overpasses.
“The thought of seeing that resource no longer available in the community was hitting me hard,” Baird admits. “But once the former [SSHH] executive director was gone, and then the board asked me to take on that role — and then we really got into the books — it was just clear at a certain point that we had an anchor tied around our ankle and we were not going to swim to shore.”
Meanwhile, some reporting was causing fear throughout the community that hundreds of people housed by SSHH’s various contracted programs would become homeless. Sacramento County officials were particularly hearing this concern about the 90 individuals in its Scattered Site Shelter Program. In reality, county officials were constantly meeting with Baird and his most-stalwart colleagues — SSHH workers who were trying to hang on as their place of employment went to ashes — in an effort to ensure such a tragedy did not manifest on the streets. Other California nonprofits were also rushing into the conversations.
It still looked grim. Baird didn’t know what would happen.
“This was going to be a human catastrophe,” he stresses. “People were going to be homeless. It was almost like, ‘It’s unavoidable.’ We were having these meetings — but it was a longshot.”
The quickening of an organization’s death
Since being founded in 2000, SSHH grew into an organization that worked on numerous fronts of the homeless crisis. At the peak of its run, SSHH provided interim housing, outreach efforts to at-risk individuals in shelters or encampments, a renters helpline to navigate landlord-tenant disputes and a resource assistance team known as HART, comprised of individuals and local nonprofits dedicated to assembling resources for homeless people.
However, it was best known for providing permanent supportive housing to formerly homeless individuals, deploying various outreaching workers on the streets, and, eventually, its success working with Sacramento County on the Scattered Site Shelter Program.
A number of court filings paint a convoluted story of financial irregularities with SSHH and its apparent inability to properly budget, file appropriate audits, handle invoices and allocate funds according to contract stipulations. While attorneys are still working to untangle how the nonprofit’s former management brought it to insolvency, from Baird’s perspective, it was mainly a tale of his agency’s leaders trying to provide more services than they could actually handle.
“I would never doubt the sincerity behind it,” Baird stresses. “There was, and is, a tremendous need; but I think it became a matter of not knowing how to say ‘no’ to any opportunity to help, even if taking on certain contracts didn’t make sound fiscal sense.”
Emily Halcon, director of the county’s Department of Homeless Services and Housing, says that Sacramento officials first became aware of serious issues at SSHH in spring of 2022, particularly around the scattered site program. The county was giving funds to SSHH to pay their master-leases, but some landlords in the program were not being reimbursed on time by the nonprofit. That was a situation that would eventually log-jam into a disaster of many landlords not getting paid at all.
In January 2023, county officials were informed that SSHH’s executive director, John Foley, had left and that its board of directors had changed chairpersons. Two months later, with new management at SSHH crunching the numbers, the agency announced publicly that its financial hole was likely insurmountable.
Halcon said that the county’s team had been bracing for that.
“It’s a balancing act,” Halcon notes. “We want to make sure we’re good stewards of public dollars, that’s important, but just as important is that we want to support our providers who are doing the really hard work on the ground. … And it was hard on us. It was hard to see this organization not be successful. … When it became clear that Sacramento Self-Help, as an organization, was no longer going to be viable, that’s when we pivoted.”
Some media coverage back in March — coupled with no follow-up coverage from those same reporting outlets in the months that followed — created the impression that hundreds of people were thrown onto the streets because Sacramento county officials and other governments canceled SSHH’s contracts. But the contracts could not be renewed because SSHH had become a money pit with a legion of creditors. What county officials had to navigate was the fall-out. They knew the remaining employees at SSHH were trying to do the same.
As Baird went into overdrive holding meetings with various nonprofits, one of them, City Net, expressed real interest in helping. City Net is a nonprofit housing provider mainly based in Southern California. The organization was willing to take over management of the county’s Scattered Site Shelter Program. While that was a big ray of hope for what was left of SSHH’s team, the scattered site program was on the verge of unraveling before the cavalry arrived.
“There was a tremendous amount of debt outstanding and most of it was for landlords who had rented to us,” Baird remembers. “They had put their faith in us. These are people who had mortgages, and need our rent to pay their mortgages. … Some landlords had rented multiple properties to us and hadn’t been getting paid. So, they were tens of thousands of dollars in the hole. The other issue was, as we approached bankruptcy, Sac Self-Help still held the leases for the scattered sites, so the landlords were left without a tenant — but they still had houses that were full of people.”
Baird adds that while the situation could be understandably aggravating to the stiffed landlords, most kept their cool because they’d previously had a good relationship with his team. And, fortunately for them, a reprieve was on the way from Sacramento County officials who were about to pay all the missing back-rent. Soon, any property owner who’d been left in the cold had been “trued-up,” according to multiple sources.
Halcon says that the county wanted a path forward for rebuilding relationships with the landlords. That was vital to giving City Net a genuine shot at salvaging it. And it was vital to the larger stakes.
“When Sac Self-Help came to us, sort of waving the red flag about concerns, we basically stopped doing intakes except for on a case-by-case basis, such that we would be in a predicament that if any house went off-line; because, quite literally, those inside it wouldn’t have a place to go,” Halcon explains. “We had an intent and commitment at the time to make sure that no people who were being sheltered in that program were made homeless because of this.”
But even with Sacramento County and City Net swooping in, the gambit to keep those 90 people living in the program’s various houses was engulfed in leasing and legal grayness. Baird says the only way through the fog was for some of SSHH’s employees to choose staying onboard a sinking ship, basically remaining for the final paycheck and risking long-term unemployment in order to keep the Scattered Site Shelter Program intact. Roughly 50 SSHH workers decided to do just that while the new provider and management was being finalized.
“The people working for me knew we were going under,” Baird observes. “We just didn’t know the exact date. It was a situation where people were coming to work every day wondering if it was going to be their last day. But they kept coming. They were dedicated to the mission. If everybody had quit on me? That would have been it. It would have been curtains.”
Angel Uhercik, assistant director of the county’s Department of Homeless Services and Housing, agrees that those SSHH employees weathering the storm were crucially important.
“Within the program, I think the biggest challenge [SSHH] had to bridge as an agency is, as they were ramping down, they were losing folks to other employment opportunities,” Uhercik says. “So, even though, towards the end, it was a much smaller group, they were still very much committed to making sure folks were not displaced.”
The Scattered Site Shelter Program was saved, and eventually other agencies and nonprofits took over different duties that SSHH had vacated: Most importantly, Steps Forward assumed control of SSHH’s permanent supportive housing beds in Sacramento County and Central Valley Low Income Housing did the same for permanent supportive beds in San Joaquin County.
Looking at the situation through an independent lens, Bob Erlenbusch, executive director for Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, says keeping those programs in-tact was monumental. That includes the novel Scattered Site Shelter Program.
“The program is an effective program — as a model, very effective,” Erlenbusch acknowledges. “I think people becoming homeless was the biggest fear. … It was a huge deal for Self-Help to shut down.”
This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and Solutions Journalism Network. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.