Thank you so much to the author of this piece, Crystal Sanchez, of the Sacramento Homeless Union (website linked here). Photos in this piece were provided by Crystal.
Sacramento we are in a crisis.
Here are some basic facts:
Currently over 11,000 people are living on the streets of a Sacramento. This number is relatively low as not everybody is counted. A Point-In-Time count has just been completed, and the results should be coming soon.
In 2020,11,222 people reached out for services to the Sacramento Steps Forward's Continuum of Care.
Sacramento currently lacks 63,000+ units of affordable housing per the HUD (US Department of Housing and Urban Development) guidelines.
According to the Sacramento Bee (article linked here), 60,000 people can no longer afford to live here.
30,000 people applied for Sacramento Emergency Rental Assistance through the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency during COVID. Only a little over 11,000 people were helped before funding ran out. All while thousands of people were and are being evicted.
Communities destroyed by COVID
As a deadly global pandemic spread through our community, people lost their small businesses and their jobs. This is not a new crisis. The division between the haves and have-nots has become a very clear line. It shows up in everything from policy and funding, to lack of access to basic needs. Vital life saving necessities are not being provided, and low-income neighborhoods, such as Del Paso Heights and South Sacramento, have been ignored. Those who were in poverty were denied access to their most vital needs. Our BIPOC community members were the most impacted. Those who were unhoused lost access to everything.
How does an unhoused child go to school when we are offered free Wi-Fi but no place to plug in your School supplied laptop?
Why use force? Okay...so now both local and State policies and legislation are being directed towards forcing unhoused folx into services. The question is where are the services? Why do we continue to put the cart before the horse in these carrot and stick models. We will NEVER agree that enforcement is the answer because being unhoused and poor is NOT A CRIME.
What we CAN agree on is that the impacts of homelessness are affecting the community as a whole. Every block in Sacramento has unhoused folx present. From the business perspective, folx are angry and frustrated as people fill the sidewalks in front of local businesses. Residents are angry because streets and cul-de-sacs are lined with people and tents. I got the following message from a local resident who stated the following:
"I am messaging you to find resources for an encampment at the end of my street. We bought our dream home and never expected unhoused people to end up living at the end of our street. We just want what's best for all involved." Unhoused people reach out to the Sacramento Homeless Union daily, seeking services. For us at the Union, the perspective of folx involved with the unhoused community is central to our work. We all have the right to feel safe and secure. Our city is faltering, and in rapid decline, because of the State-created and policy-driven failures to adequately address our community's broken safety net and housing and homeless crisis.
What people don't understand, is that being homeless in and of itself creates other issues.
Imagine losing everything and having to find a tent in order to live on the streets with your children. Not everybody has support, and with our social services system being so broken, government support doesn't really exist either.
What's being said?
The narrative being pushed is that unhoused individuals choose to be outside and they have chosen this lifestyle. As somebody who receives daily phone calls seeking assistance, and who , like other organizations, feels completely helpless because the system is so broken that we can't even get people inside who are in dangerous emergency situations, I state that this is a false narrative. We always challenge folx to try to get services, for but for some it is nearly impossible. The system is so siloed and the City and the County often refuse to work together, often placing the blame for system failures on each other.
How did we get here? We must look at history, and look at the systems of oppression that have been built upon over time.
Here's a brief history lesson, pre-Civil War 1800s to 1860:
People experiencing homelessness were comprised of folx displaced by wars, folx seeking immigrant settlements, or folx who had been expelled from colonial towns. In this era of rapid industrialization a shift towards wage labor (as opposed to practicing trades) occurred, which resulted in less stable employment because workers were easy to replace. Young men followed railroad jobs West or migrated to the city for factory jobs, living wherever they could find shelter.
Post-Civil War 1860 to 1930:
The population of job-seeking workers expanded as veterans and freed slaves joined the ranks of the unhoused. The suffering economy of the post-war depression, combined with unregulated capitalism, served to create more instability for workers. This resulted in workers needing to be even more migratory to find work.
Next came the Great depression 1930 to 1950:
After the Great Depression the negative economic impact spread to include families, instead of just young men migrant workers. This became normal. Skid Rows, also known now as our streets, were comprised of densely congregated unhoused folx. These communities began, and continued to develop, in cities across the country. These folx were displaced, and created communities as they sought to find refuge. The homelessness crisis began to have a wide spread impact.
Next came Urban development 1950-1970:
The US began to execute systemic changes that shifted The Narrative of homelessness. Skid row and other streets populated by the unhoused, were swept and cleared in the name of urban renewal (gentrification), and new housing regulations and policies were put in place (things likes zoning, plumbing, fire, codes etc.). While this did raise the bar for quality standards within housing structures, low income populations were left out. Housing became more expensive to build and maintain, and single occupancy or SRO's were seriously depleted. So what did this mean? It meant that low income/unhoused/folx without a job had fewer-to-no housing options. History is very important as it dictates where we are today.
From 1970 to 2000:
We have had creating chronic systemic problems. Starting in 1970, more shelters and service organizations began to pop up to help fill the gaps in social services. At the same time, several court cases came about and established the right-to-shelter and homeless assistance at the federal level. However, federal budget cuts of social services further exacerbated the homelessness crisis. Next came the deinstitutionalization of mentally ill folx with no alternative treatment system in place. Many were released to the streets without access to support, as the federal government had cut funding for social services. This caused another influx of homelessness.
This brings us to today:
The current housing and homelessness scene remains the same. It is still being worsening, and we are only repeating history. With rents skyrocketing, jobs paying only minimum wages, automations taking jobs, unhoused folx being criminalized, and the presence of a failed broken housing system, people are struggling to survive. People are retreating to the streets, makeshift huts, tents, vehicles etc. to survive. They are being criminalized and told to move along in the name of development and gentrification without having a place to go.
Affordable housing is still not being built, and existing units are becoming more unreachable for people than ever. SRO (single room occupancy) units and public housing are nearly non-existent, and those who are fortunate enough to secure housing had been wait-listed for years. Local, state, and federal governments still do not fund enough social or wrap-around services. Certain government bodies are pushing for the "right to housing" but now backed by law enforcement.
As you can see, through the failures of history, our society does not, and has not, had appropriate housing or wrap-around service options. Implementing statewide legislation that seeks enforcement mechanisms for housing without implementing the necessary real-time housing and wraparound services will only exacerbate the crisis.
The community can be mad about homelessness. The unhoused are angry about being unhoused, and we are losing people every single day to the streets. Children are being raised on the streets. All this, while billions of dollars continue to be funneled down into the homeless industrial complex. Funding continues to be collected from the struggles of the poor, but the funding is never utilized to truly reinvest in our communities and our people.
We at the Sacramento Homeless Union understand the frustrations surrounding homelessness. We understand the history of homelessness, and we encourage the community to quit being combative with the unhoused.
Instead, we urge you to apply pressure to our local government structures, in order to undo the violent history of homelessness within our community, by creating housing and wraparound services. We also ask that our community get involved in our local City Council and Board of Supervisors meetings where these bad policies are being created. Be a voice for your community and create the solutions that we need to see. Silence is not an option, we are all impacted.