Homelessness has risen 70% in California’s capital. Inside the staggering emergency

On the midterm ballot is Measure O, which would direct the city manager to establish a minimum number of shelter spaces

A variety of shelters make up the Island along the American River Parkway in Sacramento, California. Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Dani Anguiano in Sacramento | 3 Nov. 2022

Sitting on the edge of a collection of about 60 tents pitched alongside the American River, Twana James is doing her best to comfort a friend at the end of her wits.

All day, the woman says, she had been waiting for a caseworker from a Sacramento non-profit to come pick her up and put her on a list for housing. “You wait all day for somebody to come and get you and they don’t come,” she cries in despair.

James offers her a ride to a shelter that provides food, showers and counseling. She makes a cheeky comment about her friend’s hair, eliciting a laugh.

It’s the sort of thing James, 53, does often. She’s a longtime resident of this encampment in California’s capital, and a caretaker for many of the elderly people who call it their home.

Dubbed the Island, the tents stretch out on a picturesque plot of land along the American River. The camp is a quick walk from a busy road, but feels like a world away from the nearby office buildings and Mexican chain restaurant. The secluded community has been there for decades, forming a tight group over the years. But it has expanded in recent years, as homelessness in the city and county has climbed to record levels.

During the pandemic, the unhoused population has soared all over California, but the increase in Sacramento has been particularly stunning.

The region has seen an almost 70% rise in homelessness since 2019, now counting more unhoused people than San Francisco. At least 9,278 people are estimated to be without a home, the majority of whom sleep outdoors or in vehicles. Encampments can be seen on levees, near schools and next to busy roads.

Twana James lives on the Island, an encampment in Sacramento. Photograph: Dani Anguiano/The Guardian

The primary force behind the dramatic rise, according to the 2022 point-in-time count, is the high cost of housing. The median home price in the county has surpassed $500,000 and the median monthly rent is $2,774, up more than 5% from last year. Some studios downtown rent for $2,000 a month, said Crystal Sanchez, the president of the Sacramento Homeless Union, while thousands of people sleep outside.

“Sacramento, the capital of the fifth largest economy in the world, lacks over 100,000 units of affordable housing,” Sanchez said. “We can’t survive here. I’ve lived here my whole life.”

The city acknowledges the unfolding emergency, but has struggled to enact meaningful solutions that match the scale of the problem, advocates say, particularly as housing prices continue to climb. And amid outrage over the growing encampments, local authorities have cracked down on unhoused communities with county bans on camping along the American River Parkway and near “critical infrastructure”.

Now as tensions over how to respond to the growing number of unhoused people across the city are heightening, homelessness is on the ballot. Measure O, an initiative backed by local business leaders unhappy with Sacramento’s approach, seeks to address the crisis by pushing encampments out of public spaces and would allow residents “harmed by unlawful camping” to take legal action against the city. Supporters say it’s a much-needed shift from the status quo to address homelessness, while opponents argue it would do nothing to solve the crisis.

We can’t survive here. I’ve lived here my whole life

Crystal Sanchez

“None of us would be surprised [if] it passes because of the anger in the community. We have a homeless crisis and elected officials are doing hardly anything about it except for continuing to criminalize people,” said Bob Erlenbusch, the executive director of the Sacramento Coalition to End Homelessness, a non-profit advocacy group.

‘Encampments everywhere’

During the pandemic, California’s homeless population, and the visibility of those residents, surged to unprecedented levels, prompting the state to pour billions into housing projects and related services to alleviate the longstanding emergency.

Homelessness had been growing for years in the Golden State due to a vast shortage of affordable housing – about a quarter of communities in the state reported the number of people sleeping outside doubled between 2015 and 2019 – and Sacramento was no exception.

In 2015, the area’s unhoused population stood at 2,659, according to figures that are widely acknowledged to be an undercount, and then climbed from 5,561 people in 2019 to 9,278 people this year.

Sacramento county now has the second highest rate of per-capita homelessness of any in the state, just after San Francisco, according to preliminary data. The situation has “changed dramatically just in the last three years”, said Erlenbusch. “We have encampments everywhere.”

Our shelters are full of people who have stabilized, found jobs and can’t find housing

Katie Valenzuela

Research by the non-profit that publishes the annual point-in-time count report found the pandemic is not the primary driver of the rise. In fact, Covid-era policies such as eviction moratoriums and extended unemployment benefits may have reduced the number of people becoming homeless.

“Covid really highlighted the crisis that was always there,” said Katie Valenzuela, a city council member, adding that pandemic protections authorities put in place like eviction moratoriums and utility assistance – and have since done away with – worked.

Instead, the report found homelessness is growing due to the high cost of housing. Sacramento’s median rent climbed 14% between January 2017 and April 2019, and an average of 20% between March 2020 and November 2021. Rising rents have pushed longtime residents on to the streets while the shortage of affordable housing has made it difficult for them to find anywhere else to go.

“You’re starting to see a lot more folks who just can’t find housing, a lot more seniors, folks with disabilities,” said Valenzuela. “Our shelters are full of people who have stabilized, found jobs and can’t find housing.”

Al Garcia, 62, has lived on the Island for about five years since he was evicted from the nearby apartment he had called home for more than a decade. A new owner bought his complex and evicted everyone who lived there, he said. He learned about the encampment from a friend and soon set up a tent and became acquainted with residents like James.

Residents say the encampments cause pollution, leave unhoused people in unsafe conditions and cause fear among community members. Photograph: Dani Anguiano/The Guardian

Some of his neighbors have lived here for decades, despite recent attempts to clear the area. This is home for residents who have nowhere else to go, said James. Residents check in on one another, there are communal resources and even a pet cemetery for residents’ deceased four-footed friends. James takes people to run errands in her car, cooking meals and checking in on folks who are sick or disabled. It’s a rare safe space outdoors for women and elderly people, she says, and the only one within reach for her and the others who call this community home.

‘We have faltered’

But living unhoused in Sacramento can be harrowing. The extreme weather in the valley city has been deadly for people on the streets – last year eight unhoused people froze to death. Over the summer, homeless activists sued the city to expand access to shelters amid extreme heat. One sprawling encampment had a large fire last year that destroyed dozens of vehicles and tents where unhoused people live.

While the Island is hidden and out of sight, other more visible encampments can be seen throughout the region next to shopping centers and apartment buildings. Parents have complained to the city council about the tents that popped up near their children’s schools.

Residents have charged the encampments create pollution, leave unhoused people in unsafe conditions and cause fear among community members. Local businesses have reported rising crime and vandalism and say they have to clean up needles and other waste. In one Sacramento suburb, residents said they fear for their safety in local parks and called for action after a neighbor was allegedly killed by an unhoused man.

A tent on the Island, a secluded encampment in Sacramento. Photograph: Dani Anguiano/The Guardian

Sacramento’s mayor, Darrell Steinberg, has long voiced support for more shelter and services to alleviate homelessness – during his tenure, the city has added nearly 1,000 shelter beds. And last year, with the unhoused population growing to a record high, Steinberg pledged to take bold action.

“The challenge dominates the city’s agenda and has grown worse during the Covid-19 pandemic. It is a housing affordability crisis and a clear failure of a still broken mental health system,” he said during an address in January 2021. “It is the last degradation for thousands mired in deep poverty. And it is a profound failure of public policy.”

In summer 2021, Steinberg introduced what he described as the “most aggressive plan in the history of the city” to combat the emergency. The city council allocated $100m to support his proposal to create 20 shelters and safe camping spaces.

But the plan has floundered. The city, facing pushback from neighborhood groups, lawsuits from businesses concerned about crime and drug use, disagreements between government agencies and a lack of support from some councilmembers, has yet to open a single site, the Sacramento Bee reported. In response to the criticism, the mayor told the newspaper that he doesn’t view that plan as a failure, but has moved his focus to more long-term solutions, like greater cooperation with the county government and support for affordable housing.

The city has made strides, said Valenzuela, opening safe parking areas, expanding shelter beds and using local dollars to keep supporting state-funded projects that offer unhoused people shelter in converted hotel rooms. But more needs to be done, she added, including putting protections in place for renters and expanding affordable housing: “There should not be people who have income on our streets.

The go to response for most communities is to go back to criminalizing people experiencing homelessness, which they did

Bob Erlenbusch

“We have tried to do more, we have faltered,” she continued. “I think we’ve really done a lot, but not nearly enough obviously given the scale of the crisis.”

Erlenbusch, with the Sacramento Coalition to End Homelessness, said the city’s measures were a failure that left residents, advocates and neighborhood councils exasperated with nothing to show for it. After that, he said: “The go-to response for most communities is to go back to criminalizing people experiencing homelessness, which they did.”

‘We all want the same thing’

In August, officials with the county voted to ban camping along the American River Parkway, where as many as 3,000 unhoused people camp. Soon after the city council prohibited tents from blocking sidewalks and business entrances. The city has also banned camping near “critical infrastructure”, which includes, schools, hospitals, childcare centers and levees.

Earlier this year, a coalition of local business groups and the chief of staff to the previous mayor, began collecting signatures for a ballot measure to fundamentally change the city’s response to homelessness.

“The situation here was deteriorating. Mayor Steinberg and the council were certainly making efforts to try to address things at scale. But pretty much for the last five years there had just been an impasse at best, finger pointing at worst,” said Daniel Conway, lawyer and former aide to ex-mayor Kevin Johnson who helped spearhead the measure. “Things were getting worse at a time when our leaders couldn’t get on the same page.”

Conway and other lawyers drafted what would become Measure O, he said, in hopes of compelling authorities to address the crisis “at scale”. Initial polling indicated the measure would probably pass and the city council, concerned the measure could bankrupt the city, moved to put its own version of the plan on the ballot.

Measure O, or the Emergency Shelter and Enforcement Act of 2022, would ban encampments on public and private property – unhoused people who turn down available shelter could face a misdemeanor charge. The measure creates an “obligation” for the city to do outreach and would direct the city manager to establish a minimum number of shelter spaces.

Conway argues against criticism that the measure would further criminalize unhoused people.

“That is in many ways what the city is currently able to do,” he said. “We definitely see an emphasis on enforcement and when it comes to creating shelter capacity [officials] kind of shrug their shoulders.”

People will vote for this in a year or two and see nothing has changed and get even more frustrated

Katie Valenzuela

The measure has broad support, Conway said, and he and other proponents are hopeful that it will bring real change to the city. “The reality here in Sacramento is this basically touches every corner of the city,” he said. “People are done with the explanations and talking points and people want to know what you’re going to actually do about it.”

But the measure, which would only take effect if the city and county come to a mutual agreement, only requires the city to open additional shelter beds if there’s a budget surplus – something Sacramento probably will not see for years.

The Sacramento Bee editorial board said the proposal “would do little to change the lives or number of unhoused people on the streets” and opponents argue it is instead designed to move people, rather than actually manage the crisis.

“It’s an open invitation for litigation that’s going to tie up the city for quite a long time,” said Erlenbusch. “It does not provide any services so far, it doesn’t provide any shelter, it doesn’t provide any affordable housing.”

“Nobody likes what’s happening right now. None of us think this is OK,” Valenzuela said. “We actually all want the same thing.” But the measure is not the answer, she said. “People will vote for this in a year or two and see nothing has changed and get even more frustrated.”

In the meantime, many of those who live on the streets have little hope of their situation changing.

“There’s no place to go,” Garcia said.

James is focused on preserving her community, where people take care of each other, and stay out of trouble, she said. James, known as the mayor of the Island, has fought against eviction efforts.

“We’re not hurting nothing. We make sure we don’t have the police here. We stay out of trouble. We don’t let troublemakers come in here,” she said. “It’s just a place where we live and they just want to take it away from us.”

James hopes that won’t happen. She’s helping unhoused friends register to vote and campaigning against Measure O. “We can make a difference,” she said.

The city recently announced plans to create a short-term, sanctioned, fenced encampment for the residents of the Island with bathrooms and showers, security as well as food and water. James is skeptical of such plans, she said, but hopes to see her friends move into permanent housing. She’ll stay on the Island until every single person there does.