By Robert J. Hansen | OBSERVER Staff Writer

Possessions of a homeless person on Capital Mall Drive in Sacramento on Saturday, September 11, 2021.(Photo by Robert J. Hansen)
Possessions of a homeless person on Capital Mall Drive in Sacramento on Saturday, September 11, 2021.(Photo by Robert J. Hansen)

The City of Sacramento has established a new “Incident Management Team” (IMT) to ensure that all available resources are being utilized and leveraged in the best manner possible for response to the homelessness crisis.

“The elements of our emergency response on homelessness must be the same as for every other disaster – rapid deployment and response, the immediate sharing of information, and a daily accountability to the public to help more people and ensure a clean, safe community,” Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said at the second of three State of City addresses on August 23.

The Mayor also said the City’s new emergency response to homelessness will be led and directed by the Fire Department. “Fire will now coordinate the activities of DCR, the Police Department, Code Enforcement, County behavioral health workers, the park rangers and our outside service partners like Hope Cooperative.”

Fire Chief Chris Costamagna said the fire department’s response to homelessness offers an alternative to public safety. “We do operate in crisis every day… from big to small, simple to complex.”

Costamagna said his department can provide things outside of the traditional 911 services. “When we go into the 911 side of the house, people are going to the hospital, that’s the only place we can take them. We need those alternatives.”

The fire department can help provide coordination, Costamanga said.

Sacramento’s criminal justice system must also be a full partner, the Mayor asserted, referencing  a major study of California’s homeless population recently completed by UC San Francisco that found 19 percent of the thousands of people surveyed entered homelessness directly from jail or prison.

“The role of the police department in these situations is a subject of controversy,” Steinberg said. “I want them to be involved in the right way so the safety of the public is always protected.”

Police Chief Kathy Lester said prevention of major felonies in encampments should be the first goal.

“We see a lot of victimization of our community and within the homeless community as well,” Lester said. “We have to look for alternative ways to address those issues.”

One-third of felony arrests last year were homeless people, Lester noted.

“In the end, no matter how many people we move, or we shelter, or we house, if there’s no path to get thousands [of people] help for underlying mental health or substance abuse conditions, none of it will succeed,” Steinberg said.

Wellspace Health’s future “comprehensive care campus,” scheduled to open next spring, will have a state-of-the-art 988 call center, the sobering center near downtown, 200 substance abuse beds and step-down beds to get people prepared to reenter society successfully when they’re done with treatment. 

“Let’s make sure these services are put to work sooner rather than later to help the people who are living on the streets,” Steinberg said.

Jonathan Porteus, Chief Executive Officer of Wellspace Health, said he would like to see people being brought to Wellspace and not the hospital. “Most people in crisis are taken to the wrong place. We need to see people coming to us, we need to know that law enforcement trusts us as a drop-off.”

Porteus said it’s disempowering to see someone leave after not being able to get services and this whole process needs to flow. “Otherwise we’re all just handcuffed more than the people we serve.”

The Mayor asked the panel if the city and county are doing enough to work with getting someone into treatment who may be reluctant at first.

“Why don’t we just try,” Porteus responded.

Mayor Steinberg said he supports any path that results in people getting the help they need, voluntary services but involuntary services if necessary, including using court diversion. 

“But the services, the full-service partnerships, the wrap-around, voluntary or involuntary, must be increased dramatically,” Steinberg said.

Porteus said that other parts of the campus won’t be open until summer 2024 and the 200-bed residential treatment center is two or three years out. Wellspace’s comprehensive care campus won’t be fully open for three or four years.

The housing will be for vulnerable seniors but we want to focus on people in this community,” Porteus said. Wellspace’s outpatient treatment will be used for CARE court cases and the crisis receiving center will be used to find the people for CARE court.

CARE Court is Gov. Gavin Newsom and lawmakers’ solution to get homeless and substance-addicted people off the streets and into hospitals.

Beginning in December 2024, family, first responders and behavioral health workers will be able to place anyone under conservatorship in CARE Court by petitioning the court on behalf of a person with untreated schizophrenia spectrum or other psychotic disorder.

“We’ve got compassion fatigue,” Porteus said. “We all want to do something and no one lets us do anything.”

Mayor Steinberg said people can debate the causes of homelessness but at the core of everything sits systemic poverty. 

“People have always lived with serious mental health issues, and substance abuse is not new. But now, people who were able to barely hang on no longer can. Housing is too unaffordable. Society is much more coarse. More people are isolated and have safety nets that have come unraveled,” Steinberg said.