Can Sacramento CA fix downtown, help homeless amid COVID-19?

Downtown Sacramento, abandoned in March by thousands of office workers when the the coronavirus pandemic struck, is like a world turned inside out.

Work from home orders that emptied office buildings have helped lay bare just how bad Sacramento’s homeless problem is and how little the city, state and social service organizations have succeeded – despite a decade of attempts to address one of Sacramento’s most vexing social issues.

Alarmed by what they say are more encampments and some “aggressive behavior,” 60 members of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership business and property owner group sent Mayor Darrell Steinberg a letter last month saying they believe the homeless issue is putting downtown’s economic future in jeopardy.

Letter signers included representatives of the Sacramento Kings, Sacramento Republic FC soccer team, the Hyatt Regency and Kimpton hotels, Paragary restaurants and Dignity Health.

They call on local officials, including the city, the Sheriff’s Office and District Attorney, to step in to create “a safe, clean and welcoming physical environment” downtown for office workers when they return post-pandemic. The business group points out that downtown is the economic engine for the city, where in normal times about 40% of the city workforce is located and where hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue is generated.

“We are losing control of a downtown we have invested in for 20 years to build,” said Michael Ault, head of the partnership. “Something needs to be done when we reopen downtown to welcome employees back.”

Among those hoping for change is Anna Rodriguez, owner of Odd Cookie Bakery, Cafe & Bar on Ninth Street next to Jazz Alley. She has a bell on the counter that she rings to alert the male kitchen chef to come to her aid when a disoriented or upset person comes in the door.

“My alley,” she says, “has become literally a homeless shelter.”

But with all shelters typically full on any given night, including the often-touted hotel rooms that the government set up to protect the homeless from the coronavirus, many homeless have nowhere to go.

Bob Erlenbusch of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness called the partnership’s letter a “veiled blaming of people experiencing homelessness for the failure of a turnaround in the downtown area.”

“Quite frankly it’s not surprising but it’s still unconscionable,” Erlenbusch said.

Downtown Sacramento crime is down

Despite calls for city and county officials to intervene, a Sacramento Bee analysis of crime data downtown found that crime incidents in the central city are in fact down during the seven months of the COVID-19 pandemic, likely because there were fewer people downtown this year and fewer businesses open.

About 800 crimes were reported downtown from March 15 through Oct. 15, excluding traffic accidents and towed vehicles. That’s down from about 940 crimes during the same period in 2019. Petty theft dropped, as did car burglaries, instances of public intoxication and shoplifting.

Reports of assault with a deadly weapon rose from 19 to 33, however, part of a citywide increase in aggravated assaults.

The business partnership’s letter calls on the city to remove “unsafe encampments” and to address bad behavior. “We cannot afford or accept for it to fall further into a real or perceived state of neglect,” it reads.

District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert is among law enforcement officials who say early releases of inmates during COVID-19 has been problematic.

“We have found that many of these individuals have been released with little or no services for safe reentry into our community,” Schubert said. “As such, we are not surprised that people released without housing, mental health or drug treatment, find themselves living on the streets or back in custody for new crimes.”

The federal health guidelines and a county health order call on police not to clear encampments from public property during the pandemic. Clearing encampments causes homeless individuals to break ties with service providers and could spread the virus if the homeless are forced to constantly move, the order says.

Several men in their 20s, sitting on the ground amid backpacks and sleeping bags at 12th and K streets last weekend, said they previously lived by the river, but came downtown because police are being less aggressive.

There are strong consequences if the city violates the order. The Sacramento Homeless Union sued the city earlier this year alleging the city was clearing encampments from public property near Roseville Road. In July, a judge found the city had indeed cleared camps, and issued a court order to the city requiring it to comply in the future. The case is still active, and Anthony Prince, an attorney for the Homeless Union, says they are gathering evidence and preparing additional legal action against the city.

The Homeless Union is concerned the letter from the business community could cause the city to go back to clearing more encampments, Prince said.

“It means the city is under pressure now to intensify the sweeps, intensify the repression against the homeless,” Prince said.

Surreal scenes downtown

This year has been a surreal turn of events downtown. Four years after the opening of Golden 1 Center, downtown continues to make progress toward becoming a regional gathering point. A number of apartment buildings are under construction, and expansions of the downtown convention center and Community Center Theater are nearing completion – all pointing toward an eventual economic recovery downtown.

But an estimated 80% of the downtown workforce is currently gone, Downtown Partnership officials said, and about 30% of central core businesses have closed, some temporarily, some permanently.

Sharif Jewelers, a cornerstone downtown business at 10th and K streets, remains empty. Like dozens of downtown storefronts, some of its windows are boarded up. On G Street, the District Attorney’s office is both boarded up and fenced in.

Liezet Arnold, of Bloem Decor, is a 10th Street florist who has provided large bouquets and displays for the Citizen Hotel, the Hyatt Hotel and numerous governors. Previously, if a homeless person slept in her store front, she could address them by name in the morning, telling them it was time to move along. Last week, a man she’d never seen before had claimed her front alcove, and when she tried to ask him to leave so she could get in her shop, he launched into a profane rant, she said.

“I’ve had to wait 30 minutes for the person to move,” Arnold said. “All you can do is sit there and wait. It gets tiring.”

Among those who camp out on the sidewalk is David Denton, 39. He just got out of jail on what he says is a graffiti offense and went back to the streets where he once lived. He sleeps outside City Hall along with other homeless. During the day, he panhandles outside a downtown 7-11 convenience store or Rite Aid.

He talks about getting his mom in Australia to buy him a ticket home, but laments the logistical steps to make that happen, starting with obtaining an identification card. He says he’s not inclined to seek help. “You mean getting into a social services program kind of thing?” Denton said. “For some, it might work. Others, they don’t want to go through the rigmarole. You deserve to be a free spirit if you choose.”

Adam Green is back in Sacramento after a stint in prison, where he served time for check fraud. He has family here, but no one has offered to take him in and he hasn’t wanted to ask. So the 38-year-old sleeps on a friend’s couch when he can and worries about what comes next.

Standing in line Saturday morning in Cesar Chavez Plaza among a few dozen homeless individuals at a makeshift soup kitchen set up by a church group, Green says he even checked into a psychiatric ward recently, just for some relief from the streets. He says he is optimistic that if he can get some help, he will find a direction.

“I’m not going to be chronic homeless,” he vows. “I won’t be.”

02_103120_JP_Downtown Homeless21.JPG
Adam Green, center, receives some toiletries after standing in line Saturday morning, Oct. 31, in Cesar Chavez Plaza with a few dozen other homeless individuals at a makeshift soup kitchen set up by a church group,. Jason Pierce [email protected]

Sacramento homeless shelters close

In the spring, state and local officials talked hopefully about using the COVID-19 crisis as a catalyst toward creating more permanent housing for homeless. But several large shelters have closed in recent weeks and more are set to close by the end of the year.

The Capitol Park Hotel on Ninth Street downtown, which at its peak sheltered about 115 homeless people downtown, closed Oct. 1. Officials say that the shelter was always planned to be temporary and that it was successful in helping move 149 homeless people into permanent housing.

But, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, the hotel reduced occupancy.

When the virus struck, Gov. Gavin Newsom launched a program called Project Roomkey, which moved homeless people into motels to protect them from the virus. In Sacramento, four hotels opened under that program. But one in North Sacramento’s Woodlake neighborhood with 140 units closed at the end of September.

Two more hotels, the La Quinta and Vagabond Inn in the River District, just north of downtown, where the homeless crisis is dire, were sheltering 315 people as of last week. It’s possible both could close at the end of the year.

At least one of the four Roomkey motels received state funding to stay open through March, county spokeswoman Janna Haynes said. It’s not yet determined if that will be one of the downtown hotels, or one in Rancho Cordova.

City officials do plan to transform the Hawthorne Hotel in the River District into permanent homeless housing. But it will not open this year. Meanwhile, a developer who is planning to build luxury apartments across the street has sued the city to block the homeless project.

The city recently opened a 50-bed shelter for women in Meadowview, but homeless women in south Sacramento get priority for a bed there. The council approved a 100-bed shelter more than a year ago at X Street and Alhambra Boulevard, but it’s opening is currently stalled by the Trump Administration.

Mayor Steinberg’s plans

Steinberg said he plans to meet with downtown stakeholders in the next few days to discuss how to help the homeless and improve the environment downtown. He has been promoting possibilities in recent months. Among those is a just-launched program run by WellSpace Health in Sacramento that allows police to bring intoxicated or drug-using people to a respite and counseling center rather than to jail.

In addition, the city recently spent $1 million in federal coronavirus stimulus funds for a methamphetamine sobering center and detox facility, which it plans to open in the central city, also in partnership with WellSpace.

During the first six months of this year, 3,790 people in Sacramento County escaped homelessness, but another 3,736 became homeless, a database estimates, another sign of how difficult the crisis is to solve. There are an estimated 5,570 homeless people living in the county on any given night, most of whom are in the city and sleeping outdoors.

Erlenbusch is hopeful the moment can lead to change, but is disappointed with the lack of progress so far. He has long pushed city and county officials to open more shelters and tiny homes for the homeless. He has argued for allowing more “Safe Ground” sanctioned campsites to open, along with warming centers and parking lots for people to safely sleep in their vehicles.

But the saga of a simple bathroom downtown for the homeless is emblematic of the problem, he said.

More than a year and a half ago, the council approved a “Portland Loo” style bathroom for Cesar Chavez Plaza. The Downtown Partnership at the time opposed the bathroom, saying it could attract more drugs and assaults. The city built the bathroom, but it has yet to open. City officials said on Monday they plan to open it in the next few days.

“When the City Council wants to do something like build an arena, they can move heaven and earth,” Erlenbusch said. “But a bathroom in Cesar Chavez Park? It’s still not (open).”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

Tony Bizjak has been reporting for The Bee for 30 years. He covers transportation, housing and development and previously was the paper’s City Hall beat reporter.

Theresa Clift covers Sacramento City Hall. Before joining The Bee in 2018, she covered local government at newspapers in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from Central Michigan University.

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