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By Jared D. Childress | Special To THE OBSERVER
The Sacramento City Council in August unanimously passed the Comprehensive Siting Plan to Address Homelessness which aims to take thousands of people off the street by providing transitional housing and services.
The plan, championed by Mayor Darrell Steinberg, preapproved 20 priority sites citywide to use the one-time allocation of $100 million in COVID-19 state and federal funds to provide wraparound services for the unhoused population.
None of the sites have opened. The mayor is proposing a right-to-housing ordinance that would require 20 sites to open by January 2023.
District 7 City Councilmember Rick Jennings believes that, once implemented, the siting plan will address the immediate needs of the approximately 11,000 unhoused Sacramentans.
Jennings, who joined the city council in 2014 after serving 12 years on the Sacramento City Unified District School Board of Directors, recently spoke about the urgency of the unhoused crisis. This Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Why is homelessness important to you?
A: Nobody should be living on the streets and not in a secure setting they can call home. We’re seeing more homelessness now than ever before.
Q: How will the siting plan help fight the unhoused crisis?
A: The plan allows us to implement over 20 strategies to give people a permanent place to call home. Some strategies are shelters; some are safe parking lots; some are tiny homes. In each plan, we ask “Why did the person become homeless?” so we can address some of the preexisting conditions that may have caused their homelessness.
Q: How will you encourage the unhoused population to take advantage of these programs and housing opportunities?
A: It’s about relationship building. The thing that many unhoused people get upset about is that nobody looks them in the eye because we are afraid that when we look them in the eye they are going to ask us for something. So we develop programs and services to meet them where they are [so they know] that they have someone committed to helping them.
Q: The 2018 Martin v. Boise decision states cities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances without enough shelter beds available for their homeless population. Critics have said the siting plan, and pending right-to-housing ordinance, circumvent the 2018 decision by forcing the unhoused to forfeit their state and federal rights by mandating them to accept shelter. How do you respond to this?
A: The Boise decision is really talking about a person’s living condition. You can’t move them — unless you have someplace for them to move. The decision protects the right of the unhoused to live where they are [without being forced to move by police or social agencies]. With the siting plan, we can take thousands of people off the street who are living and dying on the street, and give them a chance back at life again. The siting plan is an alternative to being on the street.
Q: On Dec. 6, the city ordered the towing of 160 vehicles from Commerce Circle in North Sacramento, are there plans to accommodate unhoused folks living in cars?
A: We’re working with Regional Transit on opening safe parking lots. Those will allow us to have 100 people in cars — there’s a tremendous number of people living in cars … Our job is to help keep their car running and give them a safe place to park. Our job is to provide food, bathroom facilities, and a place where they can receive counsel that will help them to move to a better place.
Q: Can you speak about the “good neighbor” policies outlined in the siting plan?
A: As we bring in housing campuses, each community gets to choose what it means to be a good neighbor — whether that’s curfews or a guest policy. We have to make sure we don’t allow people into unhoused communities whose intentions are to take advantage of the residents.
Q: Another concern with the plan is that the sites are unequally distributed amongst the districts. District 1 has no priority sites outlined in the plan. As councilmember for District 7, which includes the Pocket Area and Greenhaven, how do you feel about this criticism?
A: When you drive through Sacramento, you will see most unhoused people are downtown and in areas closer to central city. When I drive through my district, I can count maybe 10 unhoused persons. But when I go downtown, I can count hundreds. So where do we need the resources?
Q: What services does your district currently offer?
A: My area of specialty has always been scattered housing. [Scattered housing is when private homeowners allow their vacant rental properties to be used as housing for the homeless.] It’s very effective. The people in scattered housing are getting the services they need and they’re not being a bother to anybody in the neighborhood.
Q: How will the district work with private homeowners to ensure ethical conditions for the unhoused residents living in these private homes?
A: Each partner that runs the scattered housing program has protocols to ensure that people are in a safe environment. Each house has someone who is responsible for ensuring that all participants in the household are receiving the services needed. There’s also oversight from community-based organizations.
Q: How will the siting plan make a difference to existing programs?
A: Previous sites may not have the wraparound services we now have for the 20 priority sites [such as] services that help people with addiction, mental wellness, or work programs [that yield the] best chance for recovery.
Q: Mayor Steinberg said the city has two years worth of funding. After two years, how will the programs be funded?
A: We have to find a new funding source; that means we integrate it into our current budget [which may require funds reallocation.]
Q: What is the most consequential step in helping the unhoused population?
A: I’ll tell you a story because it happened to me recently. I was sitting in my car while on my lunch break from the Center for Fathers and Families. A homeless lady walks past me and says, “If you’re not going to eat all that sandwich, I’d love to have some.” She did not look like me; she was not a person of color. But she was homeless…. I thought that by giving her the sandwich that we can start to build a relationship — hopefully a relationship of trust. The next thing I’ll do to enhance this relationship is give her a hotel voucher. And then see if she’ll come into the nonprofits to show her some of the resources that are available and see if she’s willing to take advantage of these things. But again, we’re grooming our relationship.
Q: What else do you want people to know about the siting plan or the unhoused crisis?
A: That the siting plan is not the solution; it’s part of the solution. It’s one of the things we need to get people off the street because we’ve got 20 sites that we can utilize. But it’s really the relationship I have with an unhoused person that causes them to take advantage of the resources.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jared D. Childress is a UC Irvine senior and Sacramento High School graduate who was raised in Oak Park. He will receive his bachelor’s in African-American studies with a minor in Literary Journalism. This Q&A is the product of a reporting class assignment in which he was asked to interview an elected official from his hometown. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.