Commentary: We Need to Take Step One to Address the Homeless

A recent article in the Sacramento Bee reminded me of the discussion we have been having on the Vanguard in the last few days regarding homelessness and potential solutions.

The Bee reported last Friday that “it takes two hours each morning to clean up after homeless campers at (the Sacramento) courthouse.”

“The county does not own this building. The city of Sacramento does not own this building,” said Sacramento Superior Court Judge Maryanne Gilliard to the Bee.  She heads the court’s safety committee, and has been outspoken regarding the camping issue. “In 2002, the state took ownership of about 450 courthouses, including the Sacramento County Courthouse, so, ultimately, it is their responsibility to provide for a safe and clean environment for which our public can come and seek justice, service jurors and have their cases heard in court.”

But many have criticized the judge, who believes that the homeless people around the courthouse want to be homeless and not harmed.  The judge was more concerned about the mess left behind than the conditions that led them to form their encampment near the courthouse.

The judge told the paper that the Judicial Council “has neglected the courthouse and ignored court officials’ requests for funding, resources to deal with the issue and protection of its property by the state’s law enforcement agency, the California Highway Patrol.”

She “wants to see CHP patrol the courthouse after hours as it does at the state Capitol and other state buildings. She also wants a fence or other barrier erected to discourage campers from entering the grounds.”

But, as the article points out, “dozens of homeless people have set up camp at the courthouse moved in part by tighter city restrictions on camping, downtown construction, a dearth of affordable housing and storm-swollen rivers brought on by a drought-busting winter – the latest location in a ‘moving shell game,’ in the words of one advocate, across the city’s downtown.”

What is clear to me is that simply putting up barriers and hiring security will simply move the problem to someone else’s door step.  And that’s what seems to have caused the problem in the first place.

In the last month, the Vanguard toured the downtown with the Davis Chamber and other community leaders like Mayor Robb Davis.

The mayor in a recent op-ed adapted from a speech to the Chamber in April calls the issue of homelessness “a final mile problem,” which he says “is often the result of a combination of many factors that include mental health challenges; addictions to some very, very powerful substances; and, as we’re learning more and more, severe childhood trauma that underlies everything that’s happened since.”

I am supportive of the process called Housing First.  I’ve read people’s concerns, but the reality is that this is a first step.  That’s what Robb Davis called it, writing, “it is only a first step, because once the roof is there then the wrap-around services that really are about addressing the underlying needs of the population in question become important.”

But I would argue it is a critical first step.

First of all, I would argue that it is better to have a roof over one’s head, irrespective of untreated mental illness and addiction.  Those who argue that we are simply perpetuating the problem by not having mandatory treatment – and argue against having drug addicts in close proximity to housing – should look at the situation in Sacramento, where the homeless by their act of living are creating problems of trash and human waste.

But juxtapose that against the comments in the Sacramento Bee by people like Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, who is advocating for short-term solutions such as providing nearby portable restrooms.  He told the paper, “It’s shameful that there is no alternative but to use the city’s streets and alleys as a urinal. It’s dehumanizing.”

Providing for immediate shelter solves a large number of issues – and not just for the homeless but the broader community.

For those who argue that is not enough – I completely agree.  Robb Davis talks about the need for wrap-around services that address the underlying problems for the population.  And he notes that “lest we think these are short term wrap-around programs, I think we need to remember that we’re dealing with people that have gone down a long road and it’s going to be an equally long road to come back.  And so the services will need to be continued over a long period of time, which implies a revenue stream that we need to create within the community.”

He continues, “In other words, this problem will not be dealt with through one-off grants over short periods of time. We need to find out how to generate streams of revenue if we’re really going to attack the challenge that we have.”

Still, I believe that these services, while needed, are best utilized when the individuals have housing over their heads.  I think it is probably much more difficult for services to be effective when people are housing and food insecure.

I don’t want to ignore the issue of funding.  I think there are legitimate questions about whether and how we should fund these kinds of programs.

But, stop for a second, go back to the Sacramento article and note how much time and money are going into solutions that are not solutions.  If they end up spending money to upgrade security around the courthouse, to place CHP or other security agents to protect the property – that is money that is being spent that could go to actually helping homeless people but instead is going simply to protect property.

I think we ought to ask how much money we are spending now – on measures that are not addressing homeless issues but are rather mitigating the effect of homeless issues – before we complain about the possibility that we create a revenue stream to house and perhaps help the homeless.

My final point is that I have grown tired with the people who say “no” or that we cannot deal with issues.  I have also grown tired with the perfect being the enemy of the good.  We have to take a first step because we lack the resources to tackle the entire problem at once.

I think housing is a good first step, and I will back the mayor on this initiative.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Howard P

    The first step, or what should be coincident with housing, is to demand/ensure that the existing paths to second and subsequent steps are coordinated… currently, it is readily apparent, they are not.  Multiple private and public resources exist… a coxswain is needed.

    Existing ‘systems’/programs have gaps, to be sure, but if we looked at it as a network, rather than individual elements, things would be a whole lot better, with the resources that exist TODAY!

  2. Jim Hoch

    Given the age of many of the homeless Ranch Yolo seems to be the obvious solution. Anchor tenant 55+ and three room mates 45+.  No children in the complex.

      1. Jim Hoch

        No, as I identified in my first post, lo so many posts ago, this facility needs to go somewhere. Ultimately there will be two problems, where does it go and who is going to pay. I also postulated that raising funds was likely to be a significantly easier task than finding a place.

        You however, have completely ignored the issue of where. Perhaps you believe it’s trivial and nobody will mind having “Tweeker Village” next to them?

        BTW it’s an interesting liability question, if the city is housing people the city has reason to believe are abusing legal and illegal drugs, and the person then assaults someone, is there liability? I would think that this is an obvious hazard.

        Feel free to suggest your own proposed location.

        1. David Greenwald

          That’s what I would say as well – just as they talked about the need for integrated affordable housing, this kind of housing should be integrated and dispersed.

          1. Don Shor

            Several neighborhoods in our city presently deal with homeless camps next to them.
            Siting this is going to be an issue, no question. I remember the fight when Pinetree Gardens wanted to expand their 11th Street facility, and all the fears about what that would engender for the neighborhood. This isn’t going to be easy.

        2. Keith O

          What happens to the neighbors who are in close vicinity to these shelters?  You know their housing values are going to take a steep drop.  Who’s going to buy a house close to one of these facilities?  So they not only are getting hit with another parcel tax but at the same time those unlucky enough to have these halfway houses close to them will see a sharp drop in their property values.

        3. David Greenwald

          Keith: Would you rather live in close viscinity to people housed in a home or people living on the street?  THere is a clear tradeoff here, but again I go back to the underlying point that no one has disputed – people are better off living in a home than on the street.

        4. Keith O

          How many homeless are causing someone’s housing values to plummet currently in Davis?  I would venture to say that number is either zero or close to zero.  If these shelters are put in neighborhoods who’s going to replace the lost home value to close by neighbors?

        5. Jim Hoch

          Thank you David, Don, and Tia for your responses. It gives me great satisfaction. I initially said that HF was just housing, it was not a recovery program. After much criticism from various people we are back at the beginning, HF is just housing, taking people smoking meth from a tent and giving them a roof to smoke meth under.

          Dispersing would abandon any pretense of monitoring people or in fact making any serious attempt to engage them in recovery. “Here is your new pad, appreciate it if you don’t start a fire”.

          The other point to consider is that with the constrained housing market every place given to the homeless is one less place for students or any the the regular people who would like to live here.

          This is one of the powerful advantages of Rancho Yolo, it is already exclusionary and therefore will not displace students or families. People moving from tents or sleeping rough often have claustrophobia issues. RY being extremely low density will be much more comfortable for them. It does not have any children or any bikes routes to schools. It is also the cheapest housing available.


          The advantage of the dispersed units is that they will provide an active social life for the people in them. it will take less than one week for all the other homeless people to find out which places are home to the meth heads and I predict a steady stream of still-homeless visitors to those units.


  3. Sharla C.

    West Sacramento tried this with a one time grant of $60K.   They went over that budget.  They moved 60 + homeless people living on private property next to the river to a motel for two months.  While there they received extensive wrap-around services and help to IDs, social services to be able to transition into more permanent housing.  All received much needed healthcare.  Some were veterans and were able to receive housing and healthcare that way.  They were able to keep their pets which numbered more than the people, but much of their belongings were treated as hazardous waste and and replaced.   It wasn’t a pleasant transition – loud arguments, drinking and drug use still continued.  Many had psychiatric issues or drug addictions and a history of incarceration.  7 were expelled after committing numerous infractions – ranging from intolerable roommate problems to drug/domestic violence arrests.  However, 70% were able to secure needed documentation needed to search for permanent housing.  It is not clear if they actually did find new housing after the 2 months were up.  The question is – do we have an appropriate location for this kind of tumultuous transition and would our street people be willing to go?   The West Sac folks were being evicted from their camps and it was Winter – cold and stormy.

    1. Jim Hoch

      Thanks Sharla,

      Motels are much more suitable than dispersed apartments. They are easier to monitor and have separation from the neighborhood. While David views integration into the neighborhood as a good thing many parents will prefer physical and social separation.

      The pet issue will be a big deal.

      If this was recovery based and people needed to be clean/sober or adhering to a program of mental heath then I would have a very different attitude about it.

  4. Howard P

    An inconvenient truth:

    Unless a homeless person has reached the point where they seriously, sincerely want to get help, stop ‘using’, accept MH and medical treatment (as may be necessary), and are prepared to do ‘the heavy lifting’ in changing things, there is nada others can do.  Housing/no housing, doesn’t matter much if the individual is not ready.

    If they are ready, housing, away from their ‘using support system’, is crucial if they are ‘ready’.  If they are motivated.  But until then, housing itself has little therapeutic effect.  Except, perhaps to assuage guilty consciences of others.

    There is one less ‘Davis’ homeless person tonight… he is sincere, motivated, completely sober for a bit over a week, and tonight is in a facility that shelters, feeds, provides counselling, and supports him.  And he made a new friend who has come to care deeply for him in the process.  Random (?) connection where someone got him to Dr’s, Soc Sec, other appointments, and into a safe place to heal.  He’ll have to do the heavy lifting, but someone took the time, and cared enough to assist him in doing so.  He also has short-term memory issues, and medical issues… it ‘takes a village’ to help someone on a downward spiral, even when they want to ‘turn things around’.  Took exactly 3 weeks to get this far.  And, an individual who was committed to wake the village.

    Housing is a piece, but it is not a ‘cure’. Far from…

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