SACRAMENTO – In Sacramento County, there were 5,570 homeless people accounted for and living on the streets, according to a 2019 Point-In-Time Homeless Count study conducted every two years.

This homeless camp on Alhambra near W Street has been here since the stay-at-home order was issued. Oak Park has seen an increase of homeless African Americans and community activists say it is getting worse. (Photo by Antonio R. Harvey)

The study revealed that of the overall 5,570 people living on the streets, nearly 4,000 were tagged as “unsheltered” or living in unsanitary conditions such as makeshift encampments, outside of vacant buildings and tents.

Since 2017, the homeless population increased 30 percent from the 2015 numbers presented by Point-In-Time Homeless Count. Every year, the number of people experiencing homelessness continues to rise.

With the COVID-19 pandemic in play, and still with no vaccine, homelessness in Sacramento County could get worse, according to some organizations advocating for unsheltered individuals and families.

Before the state relieved restrictions on the stay-at-home order due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Faye Kennedy slowly learned something else about the homeless situation in Sacramento.

Ms. Kennedy and other homeless advocates and members of Northern California’s Poor People’s Campaign noticed that there were many Black people homeless around the Oak Park neighborhood early on.

But when the group expanded their canvassing around midtown to check on the disadvantaged and people with mental health problems, they found more African Americans struggling.

“The majority of people in California and in Sacramento who are unhoused look like me,” Ms. Kennedy told The OBSERVER. “It’s heartbreaking. And it’s heartbreaking because we see encampments that are unclean and unsanitary. These people don’t have the resources that they need.”

In collaboration with the Sacramento Black Caucus, The Poor People’s Campaign’s unit of Sacramento is one of the few Black organizations supplying homeless people with resources, Ms. Kennedy stated.

Ms. Kennedy and social justice activist and Poor People’s Campaign member Kevin Carter said in April that they identified at least 30 homeless people living on the western edge of Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood.

The site, near Highway 50 and Highway 99, is concentrated around Alhambra and W Street, where a majority of homeless people camp out.

But over the next 90 days, Ms. Kennedy and Carter began to see an increase in areas such as Oak Park, South Oak Park, Stockton Boulevard and Fruitridge.

The canvassing has since drifted to midtown Sacramento as well.
“We help everybody but it’s definitely more Black people out here experiencing homeleness,” Carter said. “We’ll visit one camp to see a group of people, hand out hand sanitizer and food, but when we come back again there are more people. I counted up to a total of 100 or more people.”

Ms. Kennedy, who is retired, says she has been pulling down the statistics and they are clear: A disproportionate number of unhoused are Black and American Indian/Alaskan Native.

Almost 129,000 people in the state of California experienced homelessness in 2019. African Americans accumulate close to 40 percent of homeless people in California.

A study by The OBSERVER, published in early May, showed that African Americans make up 15 percent of the country’s population but 52 percent of the homeless population.

Overall, The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD, says in its annual 2019 report Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, that Blacks accounted for roughly 2,500 of the homeless people in Sacramento city and county.

A chunk of the Sacramento region’s focus is on the mentally illness of chronic homelessness. About 25 percent of people experiencing homelessness have mental health issues, according to reports over the years issued by HUD.

But what Ms. Kennedy knows by contact and observation, is homelessness has another side that’s rarely in conversations because mental illness attains all the attention. She learned it through the Black experience, too.

“You have people, adults, who lived with their mothers, grandmothers or elderly relatives. The reason they became homeless, for example, is if they were living with a person that was renting and the renting became so high, that the person could no longer pay the rent, they had to move,” Ms. Kennedy said.

Other reasons for people becoming homeless is when the person they were renting a room from lost their job, passed away, or the elderly person couldn’t pay their mortgage.

These people didn’t have the best means of maintaining shelter despite the fact they are able bodies who could find employment. Employment that are not high-paying jobs, Ms. Kennedy said.

“Most of us (Black people) work in low-wage jobs, which is now considered essential workers, but don’t pay us a lot of money,” Ms. Kennedy said. “I learned this. It wasn’t like they were homeless all of their lives. But unlike their White counterparts, Black people are homeless a lot longer because it’s harder for them to access the resources.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: In Part II of this series, The OBSERVER will examine how the Poor People’s Campaign and Sacramento Area Black Caucus work with local organizations that have resources for the homeless.

By Antonio R. Harvey | OBSERVER Staff Writer