By Casey Murray | OBSERVER Staff Writer

Joshua Wood, CEO of the Sacramento Region Business Association
Joshua Wood, CEO of the Sacramento Region Business Association, says Measure O is a necessary step to help the current unhoused population find shelter. Groups that work with the unhoused have pushed back on his assertion. Verbal Adam, OBSERVER

Homelessness in Sacramento has reached a crisis point few can ignore. But while it’s clear it must be addressed, a controversial election ballot measure shows how complicated a solution could be.

Measure O, or the Emergency Shelter and Enforcement Act of 2022, would force the city to create more shelter beds and work with the county to address homelessness. It also would require unhoused residents to move to a shelter bed if offered one or move off public property if they refuse the bed. Refusal to do either could result in a misdemeanor arrest.

Whether voters pass the measure could significantly affect the estimated 9,278 individuals who are homeless in Sacramento County on a given night, according to the 2022 point-in-time count.

By the same count, about 31% of the county’s homeless residents are Black, meaning any legislation impacting the unhoused will have an outsized impact on Black Sacramentans.

Measure O is lauded by its supporters as an aggressive but necessary first step to addressing Sacramento’s crisis. But many who work with the unhoused see it as an enforcement measure to push people out of sight.

Skeptics Cite Past Promises Unkept

The major campaign to back Measure O is called “Sacramentans for Safe and Clean Streets and Parks.” Endorsements include members of the business community, but also groups such as the Sacramento Police Officers Association and the Greater Sacramento Urban League.

Joshua Wood is the CEO of the Sacramento Region Business Association, which backs Measure O and was involved in its development. He said the proposal came about after studying cities that have managed to significantly reduce their number of people experiencing homelessness.

“The first phase is you have to have shelter for people to go there so people aren’t just dying in the elements,” he said. “What we got to do with Measure O was, number one, create emergency designated shelter space where we’re safe, where it’s more protected from the elements and where we could actually then program services to go to people there.”

The measure’s next phase is enforcement, when, if a shelter bed is available and is refused, the person must move from public property. The third part, Wood said, is services, but those were left out of the measure “because it’s complicated as heck.” A city/county partnership is necessary because counties control human services, he added.

While it looks good on its face, activists and those who work with the unhoused have raised red flags over what they see as big problems with Measure O.

Kevin Carter works for the Poor People’s Campaign, a national group that advocates for people at the bottom of the economic spectrum, in Sacramento. The campaign isn’t involved in local politics, but Carter said as a Sacramentan and an activist he’s against the measure.

He and other activists have no faith that, should Measure O pass, the city and county actually will work together on a comprehensive plan to help the unhoused people who either would be pushed into shelters or off public property.

“They’re not going to do that,” he said of the city providing services to the unhoused. “It’s not going to work. Once they get the money, once they get all of these things allocated, they go to something else.”

He compared the measure, which is supported by Mayor Darrell Steinberg and every city councilmember except District 4’s Katie Valenzuela and District 8’s Mai Vang, to past initiatives that turned out to hold only false promise.

Kevin Carter, a Sacramento-based activist for the national Poor People’s Campaign
Kevin Carter, a Sacramento-based activist for the national Poor People’s Campaign, has no faith the city and county will follow through with providing needed services for the unhoused should Measure O pass. Instead, he thinks the unhoused will simply be pushed out of sight. Verbal Adam, OBSERVER

Carter also said the measure makes it look as if it will support the unhoused, but in actuality does little more than make it legal to push them out of public space. It will allow housed residents and businesses to push homeless encampments away, he said, but not solve the issue of homelessness.

On this fact, it seems most activists agree. 

Most housing and activism-related groups in Sacramento that work with the unhoused do not support the measure, including the Sacramento Housing Alliance, the ACLU of Northern California, Loaves and Fishes, and the Sacramento Homeless Union.

“The problem is we don’t have the housing, we don’t have the services. So it doesn’t matter,” said Crystal Sanchez, president of the Sacramento Homeless Union. 

She said whatever “services” Measure O supporters are referring to don’t exist and that the number of unhoused has far outpaced the city or county’s current capacity to help. She also said the measure’s inclusion of more temporary housing, which would cover only a tiny fraction of those experiencing homelessness, is unhelpful. The beds would quickly fill and many still would have no shelter.

State’s Housing Shortage Drives Crisis

In 2021, the California Housing Partnership, a group created by the California legislature to create housing policy recommendations, found that Sacramento County had an affordable housing shortfall of more than 58,000 units.

Until housing is addressed, homelessness in the city and county will continue to be an issue, according to Ryan Finnigan, a senior research associate at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley, which studies homelessness in California. He said lack of affordable housing — not a greater prevalence of mental illness, substance abuse or unemployment — is a primary driver of the shortfall in recent years.

“If I’m a person who loses my job or is struggling with mental illness or substance use, that is absolutely important for my risk of homelessness, but it doesn’t explain why there’s more homelessness in California than there is in a place like Indiana, which is where I’m from, where there’s a lot of opioid addiction, a lot of unemployment,” he said.

Addressing the housing crisis is a major step in addressing homelessness, but the next big need, especially for those who are chronically homeless, is services.

“Cheaper housing and more abundant housing is what we need to stop people from entering homelessness and to ultimately address it, but cheaper housing alone is not what’s going to resolve homelessness for people who have been experiencing it for a long time now,” Finnigan said. “For that we need a really robust ecosystem of both affordable and sustainable housing and effective and coordinated services that can support people in their transitions into that housing.”

In addition to Sacramento’s unhoused population increasing 67% since 2019, the number of people defined as “chronically homeless” — those who have been without housing for a sustained period, sometimes years — also has increased.

In Sacramento, about 59% of those surveyed during the point-in-time count said they had been homeless for three years or longer, vs. 41% in 2019.

More housing and services are what activists in Sacramento say they’ve been asking for. They also say Measure O is a distraction from these priorities that punishes poor people without correcting failed housing policies.

“Fight poverty, not the poor. If you’re going to get mad, tell your politicians to fight poverty and stop fighting poor people,” Carter said.

But Wood called Measure O a necessary step. Some, he said, may feel addressing shelter instead of housing first is pointless, but he believes it still can help despite the pace at which the crisis is moving.

“We couldn’t even build the housing fast enough to meet the problem,” Wood said. “So instead it’s more like at a hospital: we [need] to triage the patient with temporary shelter that we can run services to, to try to get as many people out of that life and help them.”

Wood said that regardless of whether the measure passes, stakeholders need to figure out how to keep people from ending up living on the streets in the first place, and that that begins with securing more affordable housing.

“We have to figure out policies and things to put in place to stop people from becoming homeless,” he said. “That is something that we don’t address yet and something that has to happen that we will take on.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Casey Murray is a Report For America Corp Member and a Data Reporter for The Sacramento OBSERVER.