County Approves $1.3 Million For Mobile Vehicles To Meet People ‘Where They Are’
By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
In his role as chief probation officer of Placer County, Marshall Hopper frequently gets stopped by people in the community. He often braces himself to hear something negative, as probation officers aren’t typically anyone’s favorite people.
The feedback, however, has been positive, Hopper says, from those being served by his department’s mobile outreach vehicle.
“I’ve had people stop me and go, ‘I’ve never been treated like that before’ and I’m going, ‘What are you talking about?’ Or ‘Oh, no. They did something wrong.’ But people are like, ‘No, they treated me like a human being.’”
Sacramento County’s probation chief, Marlon Yarber, wants similar results. Yarber and other county officials recently announced receipt of grant money allowing them to purchase five mobile outreach vehicles of their own. The vehicles will aid the department in helping locals on probation overcome barriers that impact their ability to make mandated appointments and access other services.
Sacramento is one of 25 probation departments in California receiving grant funding in 2023. With $1.3 million, the local department got the third largest amount, behind Los Angeles County ($2.1 million) and Riverside County ($1.7 million).
While not its sole purpose, the vehicles largely will be used to reach Sacramento County’s unhoused population.
“California is facing an unprecedented homelessness crisis compounded by the fact that 70% of unhoused individuals were previously incarcerated,” says Assemblymember Tina McKinnor. McKinnor was not present for the announcement, but is backing several reform-related bills.
As of Aug. 28, 3,094 individuals on probation in Sacramento County are identified as unhoused. Of that number, 1,104 are African American. That’s 21.3% of the total number of African Americans (5,173) currently on probation in the county.
The new vehicles haven’t been purchased, but Sacramento County officials are touting the possibilities. Chevon Kothari, deputy county executive for the Department of Social Services, quoted a recent statewide survey of the unhoused by UC San Francisco.
“What they found is that 79% of folks had been incarcerated at some point in their lives,” Kothari says. “In our own county jail here, 70% of folks report having a mental health diagnosis with 33% having a severe mental illness. It’s no shock to us that the barriers for those who are unhoused, in terms of meeting their probation requirements, in terms of finding access to meaningful housing and services and employment, are increased as a result of not having access to care and services.
“We see this as a tremendous opportunity to actually co-deploy our teams in the health and human services departments with our partners at probation. The board has made significant investments in the county over the past couple of years, and increasing our outreach and engagement efforts and encampments in shelters and in communities that are disproportionately impacted. This is just another opportunity for us to be able to partner and get services to people where they are so that we can decrease those barriers.”
The mobile unit can bring people together with probation officers and social workers. The Placer County vehicle is equipped with TV monitors that allow for court sessions, with judges and legal representatives present virtually.
“Instead of telling them, ‘Hey, you’re going to go ride the bus for three or four hours to get to the court system,’ we bring the court system to them,” Hopper says.
Low-level offenses typically earn a person a lesser consequence.
“It’s usually four to eight hours of community service, we can oversee that,” Johnson says, adding they often have people pick up trash near the vehicle to fulfill that obligation.
“And then we move on in life instead of clogging up the court system with a bunch of missed court dates.”
People also can be linked to substance abuse treatment and housing resources.
The grant funds allow for purchase of the vehicles as well as equipment, telecommunications, and other technology needed to operate them. Yarber also envisions operating full size trucks with attached trailers to offer showers and laundry service – which will go a long way toward fostering dignity, as the inability to bathe, focus on hygiene or wash one’s clothing is another barrier to making appointments and social interaction.
The Aug. 17 announcement was accompanied by tours of Placer County’s mobile unit, led by Hopper and Aaron Johnson, manager for the county’s division of outreach.
“We want to provide them with every opportunity for success. You get to that point through building relationships and trust,” Johnson says.
“When they come in and see us on a regular basis, we can review court orders, we can check on their counseling programs, we can help them get a California ID or social security card or a birth certificate – things that they may be struggling with.”
Homeless individuals often commit low-level offenses and then end up with warrants, Johnson says.
“That warrant gets really stagnant because they can’t get to their court dates,” he explained. “When you’re living in a field, you’re not remembering that today is Thursday and that you’re supposed to be in court.”
“I typically refer to probation officers as a hybrid combination of social worker and law enforcement. They have a very unique and a very, very important mission here in Sacramento County and across the state of California, in terms of just making sure that those that have been previously incarcerated, have every opportunity to change their lives, and do so and become productive members of our communities.”– County Supervisor Phil Serna
“What we’re finding is they then get stopped by local police and the local police go, ‘I’m not going to take you to jail, here’s another promise-to-appear. And then they miss that one and the next one and all of a sudden, they’ve got 10 warrants stacked up.”
Having warrants can be dangerous for African Americans, Black men particularly, as they’re often used to justify stops and other interactions that are, quite frankly, unwarranted. Some of those interactions have fatal outcomes. “Driving while Black” is still a thing, as demonstrated by an October 2022 report from Catalyst California and the ACLU of Southern California that found Blacks in Sacramento County are over 4.5 times more likely to be pulled over for traffic violations than whites. Many add other words like “shopping,” “dining,” “traveling,” “breathing” and “struggling” in front of “while Black to call attention to just how pervasive racism remains nationally.
The Re-entry and Housing Coalition says homelessness can be both “a cause and consequence of having a criminal record.” According to the group, more than 25% of people experiencing homelessness report being arrested for activities that are a direct result of their homelessness, such as sitting, lying down or sleeping in public.
“By no means should anyone associate [probation’s involvement] with trying to criminalize homelessness,” County Supervisor Phil Serna says.
“In fact, what we’re trying to do is make sure that folks that are unhoused that do have experience with probation, actually have it present much more conveniently for them. So if anything, this is certainly not about stigmatizing the homeless. This is about providing better service for those that don’t have a physical address.
“I think the term ‘criminalizing homelessness,’ unfortunately, is kind of a catchphrase that is used too liberally, quite frankly,” Serna continues. “If you look at our track record here in Sacramento County, and I’m sure in other places across the state, when you account for all that we’re doing in terms of policy development and resource allocation to ensure that we not just provide services for those that are unhoused, but ultimately, the goal is to bring them out of that circumstance. That should be the ultimate function of local government.”
Hopper and Johnson say that when out with the vehicle, much of their time is spent breaking down barriers and building trust.
“We meet with them every week for months and months and months and finally they go, ‘Here’s my mom’s phone number’ or they finally go, ‘Here’s the town I’m really from.’ What we found is that in being that balance between law enforcement and social work, what you’ve got to do is, I’ve got to get to know your story,” Johnson says. “You’ve got to get to trust me. And then we’ve got to figure out, how do I get you out of this situation? Because nobody of solid mind really wants to live on the streets. That’s not a life that anybody wants.”
While officials have eyed several areas where they want to pull up with the vehicles, Yarber says the “beauty of the project” is that “we can go wherever the people are.”
“In addition to encampments, we see this also as an opportunity to connect with people who are just getting released from jail, and being able to park downtown,” he says. “And when folks are told they have to report, they can literally step outside and step into the vehicle, handle that first requirement of reporting and then also get assessed for eligibility, also get assessed for mental health and drug and alcohol treatment … then find out if they need assistance with housing, and then be on their way.”
Over the coming weeks, “Inside Out” will highlight the experiences of formerly incarcerated individuals and their families, look at efforts to improve local jail and prison facilities, and share the perspectives of Black correctional staffers and attorneys who work on change from within and activists who have dedicated their lives to shining a light on the inequities of the criminal justice system.