Attacking Carmichael’s Homeless Problem: First, the Numbers

Carmichael, CA (MPG)  |  Commentary from ATLAS
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Past annual counts of Carmichael’s homeless people suggest that as many as 150 may be on our streets, but many hundreds more are out of sight – most of them children.

No one knows the exact numbers, but every two years volunteers take an on-the-street count of homeless people across Sacramento County. Besides the informal government-directed census, they also conduct voluntary in-depth interviews

While volunteer counters fanned out on the evening of Jan. 25, Winter Sanctuaries involving Carmichael churches were offering overnight housing and meals. Christ Community Church was a host overnight site for up to 20 men and women who were bused in from Citrus Heights. The church and 10 others are participating in Carmichael HART (Homeless Assistance Resource Team), a collaboration also involving businesses, nonprofit charities and schools.

Since last August, as many as 40 people have attended HART’s past six monthly organizing meetings to get information about the scope of Carmichael’s situation and devise solutions ultimately aimed at helping people move off the street into transitional or permanent housing with resources and, later, job prospects.

Carmichael HART has pitched in to help its counterpart in Citrus Heights, which for the first year has been operating its own Winter Sanctuary program to offer homeless men and women safe haven from the season’s cold and rain. Last year, Citrus Heights helped Rancho Cordova HART’s shelter program. Other community-based shelters also have been operating in Davis and Elk Grove for several years.

Besides Carmichael’s shelter, the Greater Sacramento Winter Sanctuary, involving dozens of the county’s churches, have offered overnight spaces for 100 or more people daily through March 31. Carmichael Presbyterian Church has been our community’s intake center where “guests” are registered, then bused to a host church by 6 p.m. The program runs through March 31.

Guests are given a dinner and loaned a cot and sleeping bag that they check back in before they return to the intake center by 7 a.m. the next morning. Many homeless people are repeat visitors.

Some nonprofits also operate other winter shelters around the county. Most exclude children under age 18 and pets. Organizers say the word gets out about the shelters although many people choose to stay on the street rather than accept restrictions related to hours, conduct and prohibitions of drugs and alcohol. Sometimes people are turned away once capacity has been reached.

County and school district figures show that many of Carmichael’s residents who don’t have a permanent address are children who have no say in where they spend their nights. They typically “couch surf” with friends or relatives, sleep in cars or move around to temporary day shelters and motels. Regular school attendance is a huge challenge.

Steve Young, a school community worker for homeless children and families for the San Juan Unified School District, says almost 3,000 of the 40,000 students in the district are “living in transition” – including about 790 in the Carmichael area.

“Truancy is a big issue when it comes to homelessness,” Young said at a Carmichael HART meeting. “A lot of kids are missing school because of it. There’s a lot of trauma where these kids are becoming homeless like a death in the family, a mental health issue or drug addiction. A divorce can lead to it, or the loss of a job. Right now, in Sacramento, you need to make at least $20 an hour to rent a two-bedroom apartment. We’ve got single mothers who are making $10 an hour and they’ve got five kids. They’re not making it.”

Shaun Dillon, a Carmichael community advocate, told HART that Sacramento County has a deficit of up to 60,000 affordable housing units.

Several plans are in the works to develop such units in the region, including a village of “tiny houses” grouped around common service facilities. Elk Grove HART operates four transitional houses to move people off the street and position them for the job market.

Ken Bennett of Sacramento Self-Help Housing says Carmichael HART may want to consider “shared housing” where four or more people pay about $450 a month for space in a rented residence with house leaders and counseling. Transitional housing is another model being considered. However, Bennett says, “The long-term goal of transitional housing requires financing and extensive partnering.”

Despite such challenges, Carmichael HART participants are upbeat about the strong turnout of community volunteers at planning meetings and winter shelters.

Scott Young of ATLAS, a nonprofit thrift shop operator and charity serving needy Carmichael people, said at a recent HART meeting:

“There’s a lot of capital in this room. We’ve made a good head start. Our winter shelters are meeting a need and giving us experience. However, they’re not getting us any closer to a permanent solution to homelessness. What we really need is more affordable housing. We’re learning about the population that we’re serving, about their needs and how they landed on the street. But until we see them in permanent housing and with better access to employment, we won’t be nearly finished.”