The real face of homelessness

As temperatures drop and shelters fill with men, women and children, it's time to re-examine 10 persistent myths about Sacramento's homeless population

by Nick Miller
November 11, 2012
News & Review

It's “Pancake Friday” on a chilly November morning at Maryhouse, a downtown Sacramento sanctuary for homeless women and children. Dozens queue patiently to enter, gently bouncing up and down in the cold as they wait for free cafeteria plates filled with flapjacks, cereal, fruit and oatmeal. And hot coffee, for sure.

Brenda sits alone inside the quaint dining room. Last summer, she lost her animal-control-dispatch gig in Southern California and, after unemployment benefits ran out, she and her three disabled children eventually ended up living on the streets here in Sacramento. For months.

Her story defies the belief that homeless people don’t want to work or don’t have any skills. Before moving to Sacramento, she taught computer skills to schoolkids in San Francisco. She’s accomplished, wise, funny.

“But I’m 52, and no one likes to hire 50-year-olds,” she explains in between bites of breakfast. Sadly, there are a lot of people down at Maryhouse her age, she says. People like her who “just got caught in the recession.”

City leaders, social workers, activists—most everyone agrees that this is the new face of Sacramento homelessness. The myth that all homeless people are lazy, drug-addicted, possibly schizophrenic men chatting with shopping carts is a fallacy believed by those who’ve never witnessed real poverty.

The problem is education: There’s just so much misinformation out there when it comes to homelessness, especially in recent months.

The frigid season is upon us, and the city’s winter-shelter program starts up this week—what better time to look at the myths and realities of life on Sacramento’s streets?

Myth 1: Lazy people refuse to work and end up homeless.

Brenda (her last name and the last names of all the homeless people interviewed for this story have been withheld for privacy)says she was “scared of the night” when she first became homeless, and her family resorted to hiding amid north Sacramento's shadows.

“When you just have a sleeping bag, you can squash behind some bushes and hopefully not be seen,” Brenda explains.

Often, and usually in the middle of the night, law enforcement or security would roust her sleeping family and force them to move somewhere else. During the day, it wasn’t much better: Brenda and her kids found themselves constantly on the move from one social-service center to the next, looking for food, shelter—anything.

“You’re always exhausted,” she explains. “It’s stressful and a job.

“Homelessness is a job.”

Brenda just recently found an apartment, so she’s no longer out all night. But she still needs work.

“It’s the economy that’s come home to roost in a lot of places,” reminds Jay Schenirer, the former Sacramento Food Bank general manager and current city council member representing Oak Park and south Sacramento. “Single men and homelessness has been relatively constant. But homelessness among women and children and families has increased.”

Bob Erlenbusch, who’s worked on homelessness issues for 28 years and heads up the Sacramento Housing Alliance, says the big “myth is that they’re third-grade dropouts, they have no skills.”

The average homeless Sacramentan has 12.5 years of schooling, according to a recent SHC survey. Of the 400 homeless individuals questioned, 90 percent were unemployed, 90 percent wanted to work and 42 percent even possessed some kind of skill certificate.

Too bad there just aren’t any jobs.


Myth 2: There are thousands of homeless children in Sacramento.

The last time Sacramento County conducted a homeless count in January 2011, the results surprised even the most optimistic poverty experts: Chronic homelessness had dropped by half, overall homelessness had dipped 15 percent, and in all, only some 2,500 homeless persons made the final count.

Traditional media was quick to champion these numbers. But the proverbial boots-on-the-ground workers—such as Safe Ground activist and Sacramento Steps Forward board member John Kraintz, or Erlenbusch at the Housing Alliance—say the county data is flat-out wrong.

Consider a report by county school districts from last year. The study had teachers from 13 area school districts ask students about their living situations. What they learned: 11,354 Sacramento County kids were in homeless situations, the most being 964 first graders.

The 2011 county homeless count survey, meanwhile, documented only five homeless children.

“This gives you a very graphic image of how silly the homeless count is,” Erlenbusch says. It’s estimated that upward of 25,000 Sacramento-region residents experience homeless situations each year.

While visiting breakfast at Loaves & Fishes last week, SN&R met more than two dozen homeless kids, most all under age 10. Three of them—Marcus, 9; Lorenzo, 7; and Angeliah, 5—have spent time in and out of transitional housing; currently they sleep each night in a car with their mother, Donna (who appears on this issue’s front cover with her son).

Donna struggles each day to get back into a housing program while her kids attend Loaves’ Mustard Seed School, along with 35 other enrolled students.

But there are thousands upon thousands—thousands and thousands—more.


Myth 3: Illegal camping on the American River Parkway is out of control.

This past summer, Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton put Loaves & Fishes in his crosshairs. First, he called out the organization as an enabler of illegal camping along the American River. And then, in a subsequent column, he wrote of Loaves' “growing negative effect” on Sacramento. This is not to mention insinuating that the nonprofit's tacit support of campers could someday lead to “screams” by an abducted child stashed away in the parkway.

“Loaves & Fishes is the magnet that draws the people destroying the parkway,” Breton wrote, calling the situation “out of control.”

But area experts who spoke to SN&R—from rangers to parkway nonprofit heads—don’t agree with Breton’s choice of words.

“I don’t think it’s out of control,” Sacramento County Chief Ranger Stan Lumsden says. “Some people say we’re not doing enough, some say it’s too aggressive. I think things are about right in our opinion.”

Recently, the chief and his four full-time ranger staff began working with the Department of Human Assistance to move what are estimated to be some 200 illegal campers out of the parkway. If they encounter a camper, he or she is cited and moved out. Abandoned encampments are tagged with a 48-hour notice, then cleared. Three citations equals an arrest—but this seldom occurs, Lumsden explains.

As SN&R reported in January, camping citations shot up 2,000 percent—not a misprint—when Lumsden took over 14 months ago. Since, violent incidents in the parkway have gone down over the past year, and rangers monitor the land near Highway 160, Northgate Boulevard and the 20th Street bridge more aggressively.

Most agree that this lower region of the parkway near mile zero saw an uptick in illegal camping over the past four years due to budget cuts, not because of Loaves & Fishes’ proximity. Four years ago, there were about 24 rangers covering the parkway.

“And the fact is that there are now two rangers and a maintenance person for the lower region,” says Dianna Poggetto, executive director of the American River Parkway Foundation.

Poggetto, who worked on homelessness issues before coming to the ARPF, still insists that the parkway was “being destroyed” by campers. But she also affirmed that “steps are being made in a positive direction” to make the parkway a nicer place for its 8 million annual visitors.

Tavina and her son, Carter, spend time together before he heads off to school. The family stays at a friend’s house since Tavina recently got out of prison.

And she agreed that services like those offered at Loaves—ones that “address mental-health needs, health-care needs”—are necessary, or individuals will “just fall back into the cycle.” And possibly end up camping on the river.

Joan Burke with Loaves & Fishes reminded that those camping on the river typically suffer from severe mental-illness or substance-abuse issues.

“When people camp outside, it’s an act of desperation,” she said. “The crisis is not that the camping is out of control, but that we haven’t found better solutions.”

Is the answer really blaming Loaves & Fishes?


Myth 4: It’s pretty much impossible to get a shelter bed.

Tom Armstrong is not just Sacramento's premier homelessness blogger—he's been homeless for years. A face in the community, he's spent dozens of nights at the Union Gospel Mission shelter in north Sacramento. And, while he hasn't slept there lately, he says the facility receives “10 newcomers every night”—and even more who are turned away.

“The economy’s supposedly picking up, but not for homeless people,” he says. “It’s getting worse.”

It’s true: Low-income residents who suddenly find themselves without a place to reside vie with the chronically homeless, newly paroled inmates and others for a very limited number of indoor beds. Only one local shelter keeps a waiting list. And shelter turn-away data is a solemn snapshot of an underfunded system.

There are only three family shelters in Sacramento, and employees say they are always full. In October at St. John’s Shelter, which offers a 90-day program for women and children, 204 families were turned away.

During the same month at The Salvation Army—which houses 43 men, 13 women, 12 veterans and five seniors—there were 136 men, 56 women and 47 veterans on a waiting list. And it’s the same story at all other emergency- and transitional-housing spots: no vacancy.

“If somebody becomes homeless, we don’t have an emergency shelter program that functions,” says the Housing Alliance’s Erlenbusch.

“And that’s the reason people turn to the river. It’s because there’s not shelter space anymore, frankly,” Armstrong adds.

There are solutions in the mix. The Winter Sanctuary program, where local churches house residents, opens early this year on November 19 instead of in December. Safe Ground is working on a “pilgrimage program” to create more beds. Mercy Housing will soon open 150 low-income units at Seventh and H streets. And Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna recently raised more than $80,000 for additional shelter beds and motel vouchers.

At the same time, married people have to separate to get a bed. Pets get left behind. And the “cruel game of musical chairs”—as Burke with Loaves calls it—persists.


Myth 5: Mayor Kevin Johnson doesn’t care about homelessness.

Whenever police dismantle a “tent city” or when too many illegal campers pop up along the American River’s banks, those on both sides of the debate often finger Mayor Kevin Johnson with the blame.

It’s interesting, then, that those working closely on homelessness issues almost unanimously praise the mayor’s work. Even activists you wouldn’t expect.

“I think he does care deeply about homeless people,” Burke says of the mayor, adding that, unlike most other city leaders, Johnson’s enacted meaningful initiatives: Sacramento Steps Forward in 2009, a joint powers association that now oversees federal homeless funds instead of the county; One Day to End Homelessness in 2010, which raised and leveraged nearly $2 million, more than doubling the size of the city’s winter-shelter program. This has “greatly benefited homeless people,” she says.

“I think, like many of us, [the mayor’s] truly frustrated by our failure to completely eliminate homelessness in Sacramento,” Erlenbusch agrees.

Basically, most agree that Johnson is one of only three local political leaders (the other two being Serna and Schenirer) actually trying to do something. The mayor once even joined Safe Ground campers for dinner—no TV cameras in tow.

“He is a help-the-least-among-us guy,” insists mayoral spokesman Joaquin McPeek.

Yes, there aren’t sufficient shelter beds.But the mayor has led, and strongly, on homelessness. And on that topic, there’s really no debate.


Myth 6: Homelessness and poverty services are bad for downtown’s economy.

Everyone's smelled the pockets of urine stench downtown. Or witnessed a mentally ill person make a scene, then be asked to leave at a coffeehouse.

But do these incidents kill Sacto’s economy?

In Sacramento, as with most cities, the end goal is to provide poor people services and then move them out of downtown and into housing. But the process of ratcheting up Sacto’s low-income housing is slow-moving.

“And we don’t have [a] vibrant downtown that would mitigate the perception of a problem,” Schenirer adds.

The councilman conceded that there probably is an overconcentration of these kinds of services in Sacto. “But then we have to ask, ’If we do kick them out of the River District, where are they going to go?’”

Recently, local news stories and city leaders have targeted this River District—wedged between downtown and the city’s two rivers—as an area with just too much homelessness. Loaves & Fishes is in this district, as are many shelters. But no one else in Sacramento offers to take them in. Meanwhile, gentrification—the new Township Nine development, visions of a redeveloped rail yards—encroaches on Sacramento’s own Skid Row.

A similar scenario played out in downtown Los Angeles and San Francisco’s Tenderloin. “And now [this is] some of the prime property [in those cities] after 50 years of a blind eye,” Erlenbusch points out.

What’s at work now is a collaboration between business, such as Patty Kleinknecht at the River District business association, and social-service programs in an effort to reimagine downtown’s economy.

“I think actually this is good for Sacramento business, in a lot of ways,” argues Ben Burton, who works on homeless issues and oversees federal-grant monies as executive director of Sacramento Steps Forward.

It’s important to remember, again, that those who utilize low-income services often are families. Tavina, who attends a women-empowerment course at Loaves during the day while her 8-year-old son, Carter, goes to school, told SN&R that the classes changed her life.

She recently left prison and explained how learning with other women not only makes her more confident, but also makes her feel stronger for her son. Plus, it’s something to look forward to: She and her boy stay at a friend’s home, so they’re in a homeless situation, but going to the Sacramento Pipeworks’ downtown gym with classmates each Friday makes life much more bearable.

“I would workout every day if I could,” she said.

Is that a bad thing for the downtown economy?


Myth 7: Homeless people are dangerous, violent.

The city eliminated Brenda’s job last summer, and she became homeless. She recently found an apartment, but the mother of three still needs a job.

Remember the scene in A Clockwork Orange where Alex and his droogs beat a homeless man to death? That’s not just Kubrickian fantasy; it’s a reality for homeless people on the streets.

Typically, it’s people with roofs who are scared of homeless persons, especially those with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, which they misinterpret as being violent.

But a report this year by the National Coalition for the Homeless documents how the biggest threat is not the homeless man, but the young, often teenage boy who already has a roof over his head.

This NCH’s study comprised a 12-year look at violent crime against homeless persons throughout America. There are many startling conclusions.

Violence against homeless persons is trending upward, for instance, with 2010 being one of the top-five deadliest years of the past decade. Murder, beatings, even rape and setting individuals ablaze—perpetrators target homeless persons with such unthinkable brutality, oftentimes simply because they can.

More than 70 percent of these attacks were committed by individuals under the age of 30, nearly nine out of 10 attackers were men and one in five assaults resulted in death.

The study, titled “Hate Crimes Against the Homeless: Hidden in Plain View,” also cited California and Florida as the two states with the highest incident of hate crimes against homeless people.

“There are a lot of people who die every year,” says Armstrong, who says he’s lost friends to the streets over the past four years. Some overdose, some pass away because they didn’t get medical help.

And some get “shot in the head,” he adds.


Myth 8: There will be a Safe Ground.

There's a lot of support for dedicating a plot of land in the Sacramento region as a “safe ground” homeless encampment. But even after four years, Safe Ground hasn't taken root.

The concept of a safe ground is not unique to this city: There are a handful of “tent cities,” some temporary and some permanent, in states such as Washington, Oregon and New Jersey, and also in Canada.

Here in Sacramento, a safe-ground movement was founded in 2008, and today is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with the goal of creating outdoor homeless communities safe from violence and addiction and with access to clean water and decent sanitation. There have been a few Safe Ground encampments since its inception, most notably last winter along the American River embankment near 10th Street, and in 2009 east of Highway 160. These communities boasted leadership and, to a degree, adequate trash pickup and toilets. But local law enforcement ultimately cleared them out.

As Joaquin McPeek with the mayor’s office put it, “With Safe Ground, there hasn’t been the political will to get it done.”

Will there ever be?

“It’s the best of the bad alternatives,” offers Armstrong, the homeless blogger.

But finding land has been difficult. There’s a word for the unwillingness to embrace homelessness services: BANANA, or “Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.”

Four more years—will Safe Ground happen?

Not looking good

Myth 9: Sacramento is Homelessness Capital, U.S.A.

When The Oprah Winfrey Show came to town in 2009, it was estimated that some 1,200 Sacramentans were living in tents just north of Midtown near the railroad tracks by the American River. This number was likely on the low end, but it didn’t matter: All eyes were on Sacramento, which was quickly becoming known for its world-class homelessness as much as its NBA basketball team.

Even the London Daily Telegraph covered Sacto’s struggles. St. John’s Shelter executive director Michelle Steeb told the newspaper that demand was so high at her emergency shelter, she was turning away 230 women and children each day.

Two years later, after the United Nations came to Sacramento as part of a world tour to investigate access to clean water and sanitation, the city’s homeless conditions were called “unacceptable, an affront to human dignity and a violation of human rights that may amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

A nightmare, yes. But does that amount to the ignominy of River City as America’s homelessness capital?

Erlenbusch dismisses this myth as sensationalist. “I don’t know how you can be so myopic,” he says.

Before coming to Sacramento four years ago, he worked in downtown Los Angeles for decades. “I came from a community that had 4,000 people on just one street. New York is pushing 100,000 homeless.” Detroit has nearly 40,000, and almost 12,000 in San Francisco.

It’s an eye-catching headline. But it’s also ridiculous.


Myth 10: We can end homelessness.

There’s a debate among those who work in the field as to whether homelessness can actually disappear, vanish, end.

In one camp, there are guys like Sacramento Steps Forward’s Burton or Councilman Schenirer. Everyone from the mayor to Loaves praises Burton’s work with Steps Forward. His approach to Sacto’s homeless problem is one of management—to improve the situation on the ground by raising funds, increasing resources and then accumulating data so as to analyze whether these practices truly make a dent.

Sacramento needs this for sure.

Schenirer agrees: “I don’t think there is a solution to homelessness, I think there are some sort of partial solutions we should be following.”

This of course is logical—how could we eradicate a condition that’s been part of Sacramento since its founding?—yet some advocates sustain a different optimism.

“The truth is that wonderful programs in our community, and around the nation, end homelessness every day,” Erlenbusch says. But people leave jails, hospitals, foster care and the military “faster than homeless programs can take them off” the streets.

“It comes down to believing that we can move beyond merely ’managing’ homelessness,” he argued, “but moving to ending and preventing it—and for elected officials to have the political will to make it a priority.”

There’s that word again: will. Can Sacramento get some?

“I hope so,” Schenirer told SN&R. “I’m going to keep bringing it up. I think we have businesses who care. I think we have individuals who care.

“For people who do want to change their lives, I do think we do have a moral responsibility.”