After two homeless men died on the grounds of Sacramento City Hall this month, the city on Thursday opened an emergency shelter in a building within sight of where one of the men was found.
“I am heartbroken by the deaths of two people, and of course it’s not the only two people who have died as the result of homelessness,” said Mayor Darrell Steinberg, standing in front of City Hall just feet from where Michael Nunez died on Jan. 18. “I hope that people see that while we have a long way to go, we are fully committed and I feel a tremendous sense of urgency to do more.”
A building at 904 11th St. that once housed the city’s information technology center will be used to provide shelter to about 40 people and their pets for at least the next three weeks. The building has no beds, but people will be allowed to spend the night. Green vinyl pillows and mats were being delivered to the site by Thursday afternoon. Volunteers of America will run the shelter for the city.
The city pulled the shelter together in just over 24 hours. Interim City Manager Howard Chan toured the empty building Wednesday evening and approved the location, despite concerns over its condition after having been vacant for years. Public Works support services manager Amy Williams was called in at 8 a.m. and ran city work crews all day, including electrical and plumbing teams. By late afternoon, the bathroom floors were still wet from mopping and the smell of cleaning fluid was pungent, but the building was ready for its first night.
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“I was a little concerned,” said Chan, surveying the results. “But this is night and day. ... This has been a heavy lift.”
Chan said the shelter will be open seven days a week for three weeks, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., and will have food available. It is expected to cost the city about $25,000 to run for a three-week period, but Councilwoman Angelique Ashby raised donations from private sector and nonprofit donors to cover the entire cost.
In conjunction with the opening of the new city shelter, homeless campers will no longer be allowed to sleep on City Hall grounds, said Chan. Sacramento police bicycle officers were scheduled to visit the site Thursday evening and inform campers. Wellspace Health also on Thursday began sending its street nurse to the area on a daily basis.
Outside in nearby Cesar Chavez Plaza, the news of the new facility was met with surprise and relief.
“That’s great ’cause you know what? We need it,” said William Mercer, a homeless man who was friends with Nunez.
The city’s decision to open the shelter comes as pressure is increasing to find a solution to Sacramento’s intractable homeless problem. Heavy rains this year have caused the rivers to rise, forcing campers from their usual spots along the American River Parkway.
On Wednesday night, Sacramento County dispatched nearly 400 people to conduct the Homeless Point in Time Count, a federally mandated canvass that takes place every two years. In 2015, the last time the count was conducted, the survey found about 2,650 people who lacked permanent housing, including 948 who were sleeping outside.
Next Tuesday, the Sacramento City Council and Sacramento County Board of Supervisors will have a joint meeting to discuss a combined effort to find solutions to homelessness.
Members of both bodies volunteered for the count – Councilmen Steve Hansen and Jeff Harris from the city and Supervisors Kennedy, Phil Serna and Don Nottoli from the county.
“There’s no issue that’s facing any local government more right now than homelessness,” Kennedy said. “For us to really tackle the problem, we have to have an accurate count of what the problem is for not only our planning purposes, but also for federal funding and other funding.”
HUD uses the count to help determine the amount of federal money each city or county gets for combating homelessness.
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The largest group of volunteers was sent out in the city of Sacramento, but groups also went to Galt, Folsom, Rancho Cordova and Citrus Heights. Some groups were deployed from the Citrus Heights Police Department, Elk Grove Police Department and the LGBT Center in midtown. The final report will come out this summer.
Community leaders who participated in Wednesday night’s homeless count said they were looking forward to getting some solid information on whether the number of people on the street is growing or shrinking. “We’ve been working hard with the veteran population, so I’m interested to see if that number is reduced, percentage-wise,” said Ryan Loofburrow, executive director of Sacramento Steps Forward, the county’s primary homeless services agency.
The last count found that between 2013 and 2015, the number of veterans on the street went from 302 to 313, a 3.6 percent increase.