By Crescenzo Vellucci
The Vanguard Sacramento Bureau
SACRAMENTO, CA – The Sacramento County Grand Jury has issued a scathing and gloomy investigative report strongly criticizing Sacramento county “leaders” for an “endless loop of failure” in dealing, or not dealing, with the homeless situation despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars.
It emphasized it’s not the first time the Grand Jury made recommendations relating to the unhoused community, noting its report in 2018-19 “fell on deaf ears,” entitling this report: “Homelessness Solutions Elude Elected Leaders.”
In fact, the Grand Jury took dead aim at elected officials and their combined failure to act over the past decade and a half.
“Leaders in Sacramento County must prioritize a more effective regional approach to solve the burgeoning homelessness problem. This is an endless loop of failure,” charged the Grand Jury in its report last week.
“Nearly 10,000 unhoused men, women, and children sleep on Sacramento County streets every night. Families crammed into thread-bare tents, doubled up in the broken backseats of aging cars, huddled on sidewalks in front of local stores, state office buildings, and neighborhood churches,” the report noted.
“The numbers skyrocket year after year and local government has failed to respond effectively. This occurs despite spending more than $300 million on homeless services over that period. That price tag does not include the enormous cost of law enforcement, public health, sanitation, lost commerce, or the impact on the quality of life of in Sacramento County and its seven incorporated communities,” the report continued.
The Grand Jury recommended, “County and city leaders must band together to form a comprehensive homelessness strategy. Too often, jurisdictions work independently or informally together, spend hundreds of millions of dollars, and they fail.”
A Sacramento Superior Court statement noted, “Homeless individuals and families are at risk. Homelessness issues are complex including a lack of affordable housing complicated by individuals with mental and substance abuse issues. Those experiencing homelessness are sleeping in places not intended for human habitation, eating from garbage cans, and unable to clean themselves or seek medical attention.”
The Grand Jury, after spending eights months investigating, including interviews of elected lawmakers, said it did not find a “comprehensive plan to stymie the recent dramatic rise in homeless tents and encampments.
“A common theme emerged from the SCGJ interviews with county, city, and non-profit leaders regarding the explosion in the number of homeless in Sacramento County. All believed their organization’s efforts were successful, but expressed frustration with the lack of coordination with other jurisdictions.
“The SCGJ fails to understand why these leaders believe their organizations are successful while the homeless population has tripled in the last five years,” the Grand Jury tersely asserted.
The Grand Jury report recommended the formation of a Joint Powers Authority (JPA) to tackle the “development and management of a comprehensive county-wide strategic plan,” and would include elected “directly accountable to all voters in the county and cities.”
“It’s not the first time a JPA has been proposed for Sacramento County and its seven cities. The 2018-19 Grand Jury recommended a JPA after its investigation found no coordinated organizational model to attack the homeless issue. But that fell on deaf ears,” said Norv Wellsfry, Grand Jury foreperson.
“Too often, jurisdictions work independently or informally together, spending hundreds of millions of a (taxpayer) dollars, and they have failed. The Sacramento County Grand Jury recommends that a Joint Powers Authority will provide a comprehensive and coordinated approach to the challenge of homelessness,” said the Grand Jury, described as an “independent watchdog over public entities with the county.”
The Grand Jury traced a very brief recent history of the failures of area governments, noting that in 2010 the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors and Sacramento City Council promised to form a JPA to solve homelessness, but, “No JPA was (ever) established.”
And, in March 2011, the BOS and the Sacramento City Council passed the baton to Sacramento Steps Forward (SSF) as a new agency to monitor and coordinate homeless programs, outsourcing the “problem,” but the Grand Jury wrote that plan has failed, in part because there are no elected, responsible “leaders” involved.
“Twelve years later, the problem has worsened drastically. Despite repeated efforts among elected officials and staff throughout the region to meet and discuss the issue, there is no effective regional authority to implement decisions. Media reports in 2022 continuously pointed this out. Jurisdictions work in silos to seek solutions within their borders with no real plan for this shared problem,” said the Grand Jury.
This past November, voters approved a measure which required the City and County to “improve the homelessness crisis,” but the Grand Jury said the agreement “represents small steps to address the issue of the homeless on City sidewalks and impact the surrounding community.
“The agreement does not provide a comprehensive strategy. It fails to include the other six cities or entities such as schools, public transportation, and services agencies impacted by homelessness. Homelessness is a regional problem that requires a regional solution. A new plan must include all seven cities and the County,” insists the Grand Jury.
In fact, the Grand Jury said it is the fourth SCGJ in the last seven years to recommend the County and cities develop a county-wide approach to homelessness, noting past findings and recommendation included:
“• The 2015-2016 SCGJ focused on a comprehensive plan not limited to Housing First (HF).
“• The 2016-2017 SCGJ affirmed the issue of insufficient affordable housing in the County and recommended additional coordination to address the issue.
“• The 2018-2019 SCGJ elaborated further on the extent of the challenge, the increase in the number of homeless, and some of the underlying causes. The Grand Jury identified the entities within the County involved in efforts to reduce homelessness. It was again emphasized there was a lack of an organizational model to coordinate efforts. The sole recommendation from this SCGJ was for the County to identify and implement a different model. A Joint Power Authority was suggested as a feasible approach.”
Real estate prices in Sacramento County “show a severe lack of affordable housing in the County,” said the Grand Jury Report, adding, “Many of those interviewed acknowledged this as a primary driver of initial homelessness. Housing costs in Sacramento County nearly doubled over the past decade. Homelessness has inevitably followed.”
It noted, “Sacramento has more unsheltered people than the entire state of New York. The majority of homeless in New York state live in transitional housing or emergency shelters. In Sacramento, the opposite is true—the majority sleep in tents, cars, and doorways,” and the Grand Jury confirmed “lack of housing can be fatal,” citing eight homeless deaths from hypothermia in 2021.
“More recently, two individuals have died from hypothermia, a 74-year-old man and a 66-year-old woman. Analysis of deaths within the homeless community indicates underlying medical conditions can shorten the life of a homeless individual by up to a one-third when compared to the general population,” the Grand Jury reported.
The panel said—way back in its 2018-2019 report—a restructured governing authority has worked elsewhere in California. Now, it recommends looking at Riverside, Solano, Orange and other counties where JPA has changed the face—for the better—of homelessness.
“JPAs use a governing board comprised of elected officials from each jurisdiction. This is a critical model of successful JPAs. These efforts reflect the best practices and solutions to homelessness as demonstrated by reductions in the PIT count,” the Grand Jury report maintained.
The Grand Jury said the City and County—including all the cities and unincorporated areas—should form the JPA and develop a “comprehensive County-wide strategic plan to address homelessness by July 1, 2024.”
Until the JPA can be constituted, the newly-formed County/City Partnership Agreement “should be used as a model for the other six cities as an interim measure pending the creation of a Joint Powers Authority,” the Grand Jury recommended.