We Must Think Locally to End Homelessness

Back Commentary Jan 2, 2019 By Ben Avey

Homelessness is a societal tragedy, and in that sense it is like a fire, earthquake or flood. But it’s different, too. It’s a crisis that unfolds in slow motion.

Homelessness is also a crisis that we perceive in very personal terms — we see the person sleeping on the corner near our office, panhandling by our grocery store or pushing their cart through our neighborhood. That person has a face, which we know represents thousands more. Seeing a person who has hit rock bottom elicits feelings and emotions we don’t know how to untangle. Compassion. Anger. Pity. Not knowing what to do or how to truly help, we make simple gestures, like a dollar here, a sandwich there. Maybe a coat in the winter.

Largely though, we unknowingly create narratives that help us separate us from them: They’re drug addicts; they have mental health issues; they want to be homeless; they’re not from here. We rationalize our inaction: I can’t truly help those people; it’s not my responsibility; trying to help isn’t safe.

These personal narratives have power because they have some foundation in reality. Many people experiencing homelessness do struggle with mental illness and substance abuse disorders. Some people do have personal histories that make them suspicious of help. Some people are not Sacramento natives. All of this is true, but it’s not the whole story. Far from it. Every path into homelessness is unique, and every person experiencing homelessness has a different story, but there is a common scenario:

Someone is housed, but living paycheck to paycheck. A life event stretches them beyond their financial means — whether that be a job loss, health problems, their car breaks down. They are unable to pay rent and eventually evicted. They move in with family or friends, those relationships soon straining under the weight of abject poverty. They are forced to move on.

After exhausting every spare room and couch they know, they call their car home. Without an address, shower, toilet, washing machine or a good night’s sleep, they spiral further. Any mental health or substance abuse issues they had previously managed, spiral as well. Alcohol and drugs are used to self-medicate for the stress of life on the street and its accompanying trauma.

Soon, these individuals are living in a tent. Dirty. Disheveled. Dehumanized. Your stereotypical image of homelessness.

Related: How a Campus Shelter Might Combat Homelessness

Listen now:  Lifting People Out of Homelessness

Nobody wants to be homeless, but we as a community do not have the capacity to respond en mass, despite tremendous efforts by local governments, the Sacramento Homeless Continuum of Care, homeless service providers, churches and houses of worship, and local business groups. We simply lack sufficient affordable housing and shelter space. On any given night in Sacramento County, even in the coldest months, thousands of people sleep on the street. My organization, Sacramento Steps Forward, counted 3,665 people experiencing homelessness in 2017 and expect an even higher number when we repeat the count this month. They want to come inside to get warm. They want respite from a cruel and unusual existence, but they have nowhere to go. Our shelters are full and universal local opposition prohibits shelter expansion.

Housing deficiencies are vast, as well. According to an April 2018 Sacramento Housing Alliance report, Sacramento County needs 58,552 more affordable rental homes to meet current demand. Following the destruction of the 2017 Tubbs Fire and 2018 Camp Fire, that need has only grown as middle-class families have migrated and construction costs have skyrocketed. Of course, the biggest obstacle continues to be local opposition by caring groups of people who recommend building new shelter “over there.” But there is no “over there.” The crisis of homelessness is a local one, which means we need local solutions in our own neighborhoods. We need both more affordable housing and available shelter.

Seventy percent of people experiencing homelessness are from the community in which we meet them. Another 15 percent are from the local region. Only 15 percent come from outside the region. They’re our neighbors. They’re the kid that grew up down the street. They’re families, veterans, seniors, youth and other individuals in need.

But there are answers. First, when you see a person experiencing homelessness, think of them as a neighbor in need; a person worthy of our best efforts. Second, act on your compassion by supporting the expansion of housing and shelter in your neighborhood. Engage with proponents to understand the uniqueness of each program and talk about how to address the concerns of your community. Look for reasonable compromises and win-win solutions.

Last, get involved. Offer your time, sweat or money to nonprofit organizations on the frontlines of this humanitarian crisis. Nonprofits understand the local need and provide an organized and effective response. If you want to feed the hungry, donate to a food bank. If you own or manage rental housing, partner with a homeless housing agency. If you belong to a church or house of worship, sign up to host the Winter Sanctuary shelter program for a couple nights. If you want to see the crisis up close and help us quantify the need, volunteer for the Homeless Point-in-Time Count on the evenings of Jan. 30 and 31.

Homelessness is a crisis and a tragedy that has hit our community hard. But like any great disaster, we can respond. We can ease the suffering of so many through acts of compassion and compromise.


Jason P Ortega (not verified)January 2, 2019 - 3:26pm

I volunteer at St. Mary's Dining Room in Stockton, CA. I operate in the Social Services section of the campus. I fully believe in our mission statement. It reads- "St. Mary’s Dining Room responds to poverty in San Joaquin County by feeding the hungry, caring for health issues and restoring human dignity to over 700 individuals each day." A quote that someone had posted in a room of the social service office states, "True service does not seek power over those served, nor does it desire economic gratitude or economic gain. Authentic service is simply the act of caring of letting someone, some group of people outside your own ego sphere become important to you. Their welfare becomes your welfare; their problems, hopes, and joys are as real and as sharp as your own. A person dedicated to serving others realizes that life is not a race in which we must pass other people by- but a pilgrimage which we take together". The quote had no author to credit but I strongly identify with the written statement. I sent your article to our Social Services Director to help remind us all of the trappings of poverty, the perspectives of identification, and a movement towards inititating the actions vital in order to make progress to such issues.
Collaboration over competition !
Jason Ortega

Visitor (not verified)January 2, 2019 - 3:30pm

Sadly, the premise in the story is a mixed bag of misconceptions. There are many homeless people who have fallen on tough times and just need a hand. These people benefit from our help. They are sadly, not the majority of the homeless. This larger group do not want a home or a job. They are made up of a mixed group of people who for a variety of reason do not want a “regular life”. They want to be left alone. Some have mental issues, some are untrusting, while other don’t want anything to do with our image of a good life. The cookie cutter approach does work on the homeless issues anymore than it did on the illegal drugs problems. Talk with folks who work with homeless people daily, they rarely are able to solve the problems of a person that magically helps change their life. Many reject their help. Not every problem can be solved. There is a certain amount of freedom when you realize that you can only help those people that want the offered help. It is equally important to recognize that the homeless have the right to reject help as free Americans, whether you believe they are addled or in lightened.

Visitor (not verified)January 2, 2019 - 5:20pm

How come no one is mentioning that redevelopment of Downtown due to the arena is partial cause of homelessness.

Hotels that were once affordable housing and long time residences for the now homeless, such as the Sequoia, Biltmore and the Barry, were or are being converted to facilities more suited for the folks with means.

Also, the multi-family housing project at 12th and Richards is gone, too.

Broadway redevelopment is threatening the multi-family housing project.

Folks with means took/are taking Oak Park over.

If you take away affordable housing for poor folks, where do you expect them to go if there is nothing out there but the streets and empty fields?

Penny (not verified)January 2, 2019 - 7:57pm

Not all homeless are drug addicts or alcoholics. I’ve been disabled all my life, living on SSI. $910.72 a month. No one will rent to me, I don’t make 3 times the rent. Plus Ive been wheelchair bound since I was a toddler. So most of the shared housing houses are accessible. I’m living in a house that Sacramento Steps Forward helped place me in. It’s not accessible!!! There is a step that’s 3 3/4” high coming into it. No ramp, I have to gently pop a wheelie to get in. They finally brought a threshold ramp. Good for 1” step. They really wanted to install it. I don’t want to die yet, I’m only 56. It was way to steep, I would have fallen backwards and if I hit my head, I’d be dead. Lost my mom on 10-13-2016, from a 3/4” cut to her head. After falling, walking up the ramp at her house. She had a reverse mortgage that’s how I became homeless. Something needs to be done. I need my own place. I’m grateful for being here, instead of my car. But this isn’t a good place for me. Others dot understand that spilling water on floor, I could slip and break a bone or more. People arguing I tense up, more breaks. I was told I needed to get into Quinn Cottages, but Sacramento Steps Forward said I didn’t qualify, because I was already placed. Even though this house isn’t accessible, bathroom door is 24”, wheelchair is 26”, cabinets are very high, counters the same. Quinn Cottages are set up for wheelchairs. I can’t be the only person that’s wheelchair bound and homeless. Please try and help us.

Isela Perez (not verified)January 28, 2019 - 5:15pm

I agree, we must think locally. My partner Brandon and I are looking to contribute by building tiny homes as transitional housing for those experiencing homelessness. It's what we as a micro-factory can do to help now. Any leads that would help us gain traction toward creating a tiny home village would be much appreciated.

Marcella B (not verified)March 11, 2019 - 7:25am

Isela, Thank u for your contribution. I, and my most loyal & faithful best friend and service dog, Raja, have been homeless on the streets of Sacramento since May, 2016. I truly believe that the
Tiny House communities, run by and for its residents, is the perfect plan. I can only pray the powers-to-be will launch one before it is too late, for us anyway. My mental health service provider, T-Core, just notified us that we are being put back on the streets on April 1, after only a 7mo reprieve to find housing. Raja has been infected with a "potentially deadly" bacterial infection, according to her veterinarian, at our motel and was diagnosed with mammary cancer in February; that cannot be removed while the infection remains. Even a couple of nights on the streets is a sure death sentence for us.

marcella b (not verified)December 18, 2021 - 12:06pm

Isela, I doubt you will get this response, now 3yrs later, but can only hope.
Were you and your partner able to do any Tiny Homes for the homeless? That's always been what I believe would make great headway on our homeless crisis. If any info, please email or call me at 916.509.6092. I would love to hear from you. . .