This is the final article in my three-part series, “Sacramento’s homeless: the hard times, mean streets and cruel injustices,” I am a Mercy Pedaler who knows a lot about street crime and justice. Prior to retirement, I was a prosecutor and former Deputy Executive Director of the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA). For more than 10 years I taught junior college courses in Criminology and Social Problems to maximum security prisoners. For the past two years I have walked Sacramento streets and alleys documenting in my photography and journalism what I have seen and learned.
For the first article in the series, “Hard Times”, see https://mercypedalers.com/hard-times-mean-streets-cruel-injustices/ The second article, “Mean Streets”, can be found at https://mercypedalers.com/hard-times-mean-streets-cruel-injustices-2/
“Money is the mother’s milk of politics.”
Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh, Speaker California Assembly 1961 – 1968
The statue with the words “What have we wrought” is at the intersection of K and 13th Streets in front of the Sacramento Convention Center’s west entrance. As a Mercy Pedaler, I see the statue often when reaching out to men and women experiencing homelessness on Sacramento’s downtown streets. For me the words are a reminder that homelessness is a problem that didn’t just happen, but rather one that is deeply rooted in economics, policy choices and politics. Two things I know: being homeless is a cruel injustice; and, the homeless don’t make campaign contributions.
Dozens of California city and county governments have declared homelessness an emergency in the last two years. Faced with a growing homeless population and rocketing housing costs, the city of Sacramento is likely to declare this Fall an “emergency shelter crisis” that would bring millions of dollars in state money to fund structures for thousands of people now living on the streets.
The United States has witnessed the emergence of a “class” of homeless people that dates back to the mid-1970s. We live in a society where insufficient incomes and unaffordable housing prevail. For many Americans it doesn’t take much to become homeless: an unexpected financial setback, illness or personal crisis occurs. Once homeless, as pointed out in the first two parts of this series, people are faced with new and overwhelming obstacles, i.e., the reality of hard times and mean streets.
The number of extremely poor and homeless Americans continues to rise dramatically, imperiling the values of democracy and human rights. Nowhere is this more evident than in California. Since 2016, California experienced a larger increase in homelessness than any other state. The “Golden State” has the highest percentage of unsheltered homeless individuals in the country, at slightly under 70 percent.
In April of this year, the State Auditor released a report, “Homelessness in California”, that states “California should do more to address homelessness. Currently, California has more people experiencing homelessness than any other state in the nation, and it does a poor job of sheltering this vulnerable population.” (emphasis added) see State Auditor “Homelessness in California” (April 2018) at https://auditor.ca.gov/pdfs/reports/2017-112.pdf
According to Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness issued in 2010 and updated in 2015 by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (federal homelessness council), more than 1 million Americans experience homelessness each year. The federal plan states that for most of these people, homelessness is caused by the gap between income and the cost of housing. It adds that “for many people living in poverty, the lack of stable housing leads to cycling through crisis‐driven systems, such as emergency rooms, psychiatric hospitals, detox centers, and jails. Homelessness therefore is costly not only to those who experience it firsthand but also to the entities that fund these crisis‐driven systems…. (S)table housing is the foundation upon which people build their lives—without a safe, decent, affordable place to live, it is next to impossible to achieve good health, positive educational outcomes, or economic potential.” See https://www.hudexchange.info/resources/documents/USICH-Opening-Doors-2015-Amendment.pdf
A 2017 United Nations’ study of poverty in the United States notes that 40 million Americans (more than one in eight Americans) live in poverty, nearly half in deep poverty, which U.N. investigators define as people reporting income less than one-half of the poverty threshold. The United States has the highest child poverty rates — 25 percent — in the developed world. Then there are the extremely poor who live on less than $2 per day per person and don’t have access to basic human services such as sanitation, shelter, education and health care.
The United Nations’ report states: “The American Dream is rapidly becoming the American Illusion, as the U.S. … now has the lowest rate of social mobility of any of the rich countries.” In 1981, the top 1 percent of adults earned on average 27 times more than the bottom 50 percent of adults. Today the top 1 percent earn 81 times more than the bottom 50 percent… There is no other developed country where so many voters are disenfranchised and where so few poor voters even care to go to the polls, and where ordinary voters ultimately have so little impact on political outcomes. There are no other developed countries in which so many citizens are behind bars.” See “Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights on his mission to the United States of America” (May 18, 2018) at http://undocs.org/A/HRC/38/33/ADD.1
The first important document that codified the right to adequate housing is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. Article 25 (1) states:
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
For the homeless the cruelest injustice of all is, as the American Bar Association points out, the fact that “although the human right to adequate housing is recognized in numerous international human rights instruments and scores of related policy documents and has long been regarded as essential to ensuring the well-being and dignity of all humans, a stark gap exists between these human rights principles and the current housing situation, as well as the view of housing rights, within the United States.” See “Housing Rights are Human Rights” American Bar Association (2015) at https://www.americanbar.org/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/human_rights_vol32_2005/summer2005/hr_summer05_housing.html
As a retired prosecutor, I see homelessness and poverty as issues of justice. Our democracy is predicated on providing justice. Much has been stated in the media lately that “no man is above the law.” The full quote, attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, is that “No man is above the law and no man is below its protection: nor do we ask any man’s permission when we ask him to obey it.” Fidelity to the rule of law is the centerpiece of a free society. It means that no one is beneath the protection of the law and no one, including those that work in government, is absolved of the obligation to comply with it. It is the government’s obligation to guarantee that everyone can exercise this right to live in security, peace, and dignity. This right must be provided to all persons irrespective of income or access to economic resources.
California’s booming economy is producing staggering numbers of homeless people. The higher the housing costs, the higher the homeless rate. “Our state has more than 1.7 million low-income households spending more than half their income in housing costs,” said Ben Metcalf, the director of the California Department of Housing and Community Development. “When you’re paying that much for housing, with so little left over, even a minor shock can start a cycle of homelessness.” Victoria Cabales “Homeless in California—what the data reveals” CALmatters (June 27, 2018) https://calmatters.org/articles/homeless-in-california-what-the-data-reveals/
A recent UCLA study found that sky-high housing costs is one of the most important factors behind California’s homeless crisis. According to the UCLA analysis higher median rent and home prices are strongly correlated with more people living on the streets or in shelters. The research backs other studies that have found a similar relationship. Andrew Khouri, “High cost of housing drives up homeless rates, UCLA study indicates,” Los Angeles Times (June 13, 2018) at http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-ucla-anderson-forecast-20180613-story.html
Last year Zillow released a study which shows that a 5% rent hike in L.A. County — where more than 50,000 people are estimated to be homeless — would cause 2,000 additional people to lose their homes. According to Zillow, the median rent for a vacant apartment in the county was $2,462, up 1.9% from the previous year. In 2017, rents climbed an average of 4.3% and in 2016, 6.5%. The median home price in April was $608,800, up 9% from a year earlier. Cited in http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-ucla-anderson-forecast-20180613-story.html
In 2017, Sacramento made the top of the list of cities with fastest growing rent with a 10.5 percent increase, the highest year-over-year rent growth in the nation. It was also the only metro city to end with a double digit increase, more than double the 3.9 percent national average, according to Yardi Matrix data (see http://yardimatrix.com). one in five renters are unable to pay to pay their rent in full for at least one of the past three months. The rental site estimates nearly four million Americans have experienced an eviction.
Earlier this year the Sacramento Bee reported, ”Buyers in Sacramento County’s hot but tight home sales market saw prices jump last month to the highest levels since the big bubble years in the mid-2000s. The median price has now risen every month in the last six years, hitting $357,000 in April, according to CoreLogic, a real estate data company. That’s 12 percent higher than the $317,000 median sales price a year ago. But, comparatively speaking, the local prices remain bargain basement compared to San Francisco, where the median price for a house topped $1.3 million in April. In the Bay Area as a whole, the median was $850,000.” See David Caracas, “Sacramento home prices jump to highest level since big bubble years” Sacramento Bee (May 25, 2018) at https://www.sacbee.com/news/business/real-estate-news/article211922979.html
In August of this year, the Sacramento Bee reported that the number of people who died homeless in Sacramento County jumped 75 percent in 2017, “a sad reflection of a growing crisis in the region, officials said.” According to the coroner’s office, 124 homeless people died in the county in 2017, compared to 71 the previous year. Since 2002 approximately 900 unsheltered people – roughly one person every six days – died in Sacramento County. Nearly 40 percent of those deaths have occurred between 2014 and 2017. Cynthia Hubert, “Homeless deaths surged in Sacramento County last year. Here are the leading causes,” Sacramento Bee at (August 30, 2018) https://www.sacbee.com/news/local/homeless/article217585415.html#storylink=cpy
As housing costs and homelessness continue to rise in California, the homeless are likely to endure even greater hardships and injustices. For example, temperatures elevated by climate change can be deadly for people experiencing homelessness. Extreme heat is the leading cause of weather-related death in the United States. If the number of homeless people continues to increase alongside temperatures, it will be a recipe for serious health consequences. Note that in the 1960’s Sacramento had 50 days a year with temperature in excess of 90 degrees. Today, Sacramento has on average 64 days a year with a temperature in excess of 90 degrees. By 2040 we can expect eighty 90+ degrees days of heat in Sacramento. See “How Much Hotter Is Your Hometown Today Than When You Were Born?” New York Times (August 31, 2018) at https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/08/30/climate/how-much-hotter-is-your-hometown.html?emc=edit_nn_20180831&nl=morning-briefing&nlid=5875770120180831&te=1
The Sacramento County grand jury recently released its 2018 report, “A Tarnished Jewel: the Status of Illegal (Homeless) Camping on the American River Parkway,” that found “an inordinate amount of the money and effort spent on parkway is a result of the approximate 200 illegal campers on the parkway;” and “current ordinances do not act as an effective deterrent to illegal camping in the Parkway.”
The grand jury recommends “the removal of the estimated 100 ‘service resistant’ campers on the parkway;” and, that a “carefully crafted ‘stay-away’ ordinance should be considered” by the City and County of Sacramento. The reasoning behind crafting a “stay-away” ordinance would provide “balanced options” to the homeless camper of: 1) either consenting to going to a housing facility and signing a directive of not illegally camping again; or 2) not consenting or violating the stay-away ordinance and being arrested and charged with a misdemeanor. As the grand jury sees it, under existing law no one is ever arrested or serves jail time for illegally camping. See Sacramento County “Grand Jury Final Report for 2017-2018” at http://www.sacgrandjury.org/reports/17-18/2017-2018-final-report-083465.pdf
One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. As pointed out in this series of articles you can’t arrest away homelessness. Due to the increase in factors such as substance abuse, mentally ill, homeless individuals are more likely to be incarcerated. Every single state in the United States arrests more mentally ill people than it hospitalizes. For the most part, the homeless are homeless going into and coming out of jail. Moreover, the grand jury report does not address the issue of where the homeless go if they are removed from existing campgrounds. Is the problem solved or simply moved downstream? Evictions and arrests do not change behavior.
As the philosopher George Santayana put it, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The grand jury report and its recommendations are based on interviews with Sacramento County officials, a few newspaper articles and information found on County websites. None of the the state, federal and academic studies citied in this article or in the series “Sacramento’s Homeless: Hard Times, Mean Streets and Cruel Injustices” are listed as part of the grand jury’s “methodology.”
On September 4, 2018 the U. S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Martin v. City of Boise filed it decision that holds the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment precludes the enforcement of a statute prohibiting sleeping outside against homeless individuals with no access to alternative shelter. As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter. The court found that lying and sleeping on the streets is an “unavoidable consequence” of homelessness, and that it is an Eighth Amendment violation for local governments to punish that conduct when their shelters had too few beds. See (http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2018/09/04/15-35845.pdf)
Homelessness is a cruel injustice. And, in the case of Martin v. City of Boise a Sacramento “stay-away” ordinance could constitute a violation of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment. No doubt homelessness has a massive public cost in terms of the stress it’s putting on our medical and justice systems. It’s also dramatically impacting the quality of life for California citizens.
The only true end to homelessness is a safe and stable place to call home. California has set aside nearly $5 billion for housing affordability and homelessness in 2018-19. More than $600 million has been allocated to specific homelessness response programs, which include measures to establish permanent housing, provide support for mental health services, and assist homeless youth and victims of domestic violence. It is a beginning.