The face of homelessness in our region is changing. Yes, we still see the typical street people: the disabled man asking for quarters outside our favorite coffee shop, the elderly lady pushing a grocery cart and the sleeping figures huddled under blankets in doorways. These are the chronically homeless — the most vulnerable, change-resistant and expensive in terms of taxpayer dollars spent on shelters, medical care, addiction rehab and law enforcement.
But in most of the region, we see fewer of them than we did three years ago, thanks to a federally led Housing First initiative. It showed significantly better results by shifting the focus away from shelters and piecemeal social services and toward permanent housing and intensive case management.
In Sacramento County, the local initiative is called Sacramento Steps Forward. It’s moved 500 chronically homeless individuals into housing during the past three years and is on track to house another 500 as part of its current three-year plan.
Unfortunately, our region and many others across the country are seeing an alarming increase in first-time homeless individuals who have slipped into homelessness or are on the verge of doing so because of economic recession and job loss. They are the 40-something laid-off couple from Chico who live in their car while struggling to find work in Sacramento after running out of options at home; the 62-year-old service worker who lost his job and can’t find another because of his age; or the 80-year-old senior, driven from the family home by abuse from an unemployed, depressed and angry son.
The problem is so widespread that federal stimulus money has been designated to help these newly homeless. In greater Sacramento, it amounts to $5 million over three years. The funds are designed to quickly rehouse these individuals or, if possible, come to their aid by providing rent assistance, utility payments and other resources.
Now, Sacramento County is in line to receive another $1.6 million in federal funds, thanks to collaboration between public and private partners. In March, the Sacramento Region Community Foundation, Sacramento Steps Forward and more than 80 faith-based organizations co-sponsored One Day to Prevent Homelessness, asking the public to contribute just one day’s worth of their monthly mortgage or rental payments. This effort raised the $400,000 in matching funds needed to secure an additional federal grant, enough to house 200 more families.
We need more of this collaboration that works across all boundaries — public and private, for-profit and nonprofit — to build and sustain our communities. We need more of the institutional collaboration we see in the current Sacramento Steps Forward policy board, including leaders from area governments, business, civic and religious groups.
Now is the time for all of us to look for ways to contribute as organizations and as individuals by donating, volunteering and supporting others’ efforts to lead the fight against homelessness. Those who lead the way deserve our thanks — and our strong support.
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Though a new rapid rehousing initiative may stymy the troubling trend locally, some providers remain concerned that a lack of mandatory supportive services and intensive case management may cause the program to exacerbate, not eliminate, the problem.