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Newsom asked cities to set targets for reducing homelessness. Sacramento’s goal? A 71% spike

Sacramento Bee 11/16/2022 Maggie Angst, The Sacramento Bee
Sharon Jones, who is homeless, walks through an encampment she named “Camp Resolution,” toward her tent on the corner of Arden Way and Colfax Street in Sacramento on Wednesday, Oct.19, 2022. She helped create and hang banners and signs along the fence the city built to create a safe parking lot and place for tiny homes. They never came through on their promise so the homeless reclaimed the lot earlier in this month. “We are humans, we deserve a place to stay,” said Jones. © Renée C. Byer/rbyer@sacbee.com/The Sacramento Bee/TNS Sharon Jones, who is homeless, walks through an encampment she named “Camp Resolution,” toward her tent on the corner of Arden Way and Colfax Street in Sacramento on Wednesday, Oct.19, 2022. She helped create and hang banners and signs along the fence the city built to create a safe parking lot and place for tiny homes. They never came through on their promise so the homeless reclaimed the lot earlier in this month. “We are humans, we deserve a place to stay,” said Jones.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has been increasingly clear about California’s homeless crisis: he wants to see results from local government.

That means fewer roadside encampments, fewer people sleeping on the sidewalks at night and more stable housing for those who don’t have any.

So while reviewing local plans for action in recent weeks, he said he was dumbfounded by one region’s official goal: to keep the growth of its unsheltered homeless population from rising by more than 71%.

“I thought it was a typo,” Newsom told the L.A. Times, without naming the specific jurisdiction

It turns out the governor was referring to Sacramento, which set the state’s least ambitious target for curbing the growth of unsheltered homelessness.

It was one of the data points that prompted Newsom to call local government performance “unacceptable” and to pause billions in state funding for homelessness. He’s convening a meeting on Friday with local officials to discuss how to address the issue.

“As a state, we are failing to meet the urgency of this moment,” he said in a Nov. 3 statement.

But taking Sacramento’s 71% projection at face-value doesn’t tell the full story. Like the search for solutions to the homeless crisis itself, the underlying data is not cut and dry.

Cities, counties and partnering local agencies were required this year to complete action plans and set measurable goals for getting more people off the streets and into homes. The plans were designed to hold local communities more accountable while giving officials the chance to earn bonus dollars for meeting their goals.

When the governor saw the proposals submitted by some communities, he was simply dissatisfied..

Local officials and homeless advocates, however, don’t see withholding funding as the solution. And they’re raising questions about the figures the governor used as a basis for his decision — figures some say are distorted by the massive increase in homelessness wrought by the pandemic.

“It’s just creating havoc,” said Lisa Bates, CEO of the nonprofit Sacramento Steps Forward, adding that the governor’s announcement heightened fears about the state’s uncertain funding stream for homelessness.

Understanding Sacramento’s homeless plan

On average, local plans forecast a 2% net decrease in the number of unsheltered homeless across California from 2020 to 2024, according to Newsom’s office. While some localities projected sharper reductions of up to 64%, others swung in the opposite direction.

When asked to record their goals, Sacramento city officials and a group of homeless organizations wrote “71% (increase).

Sacramento County’s 2019 homeless census estimated that 3,900 people were living on the county’s streets without shelter. In 2022, the county’s point-in-time count indicated that the number had ballooned to 6,664, or a jump of 71% in just three years. The city’s overall homeless population had exceeded that of San Francisco.

Worried that their biennial homeless count in 2024 wouldn’t be certified in time for the state’s deadline for measuring progress, Sacramento officials used numbers they already had in hand. So the figure submitted to the state fails to incorporate progress officials hoped to make moving forward — the result of what appears to be a disconnect between state and Sacramento officials.

“I love the fact that we’re going to try to use data to inform, but you know, make sure you’ve got an understanding of the data, what you asked for and whether it’s good quality data,” Bates said. “To me, this is just exactly the opposite of what I would have hoped could have come out of this.”

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said that the 71% figure submitted to the state painted a “plainly inaccurate” picture of the city’s efforts.

“The city’s homeless reduction goal going forward is a minimum of 15% by early 2024,” he said in a statement.

Officials in the governor’s office and that state’s housing agency wouldn’t comment on Sacramento’s case specifically. But they indicated that there seemed to be some miscommunication about the goal-setting process.

Even so, counties like Sacramento that experienced a significant rise in their homeless populations during the pandemic may appear on paper as if they aren’t pursuing aggressive goals, as the governor insinuated. Yet in actuality, they’re working to address the expansion already recorded.

Alameda County officials, for instance, forecast a 28% growth in unsheltered homeless from 2020 to 2024, according to its outcome goals sent to the state. While that may not sound like an ambitious target, it would require slashing the current rate of increase in its homeless population by half.

Some California homeless goals no longer accurate?

Other communities took different approaches to their forecasting.

In San Luis Obispo, where officials are bracing for a possible recession, they set a goal of preventing its unsheltered homeless population from growing more than 53% from 2020 to 2024 — the second-worst goal in the state behind Sacramento.

That projection resulted from a bit of complicated math forecasting that the number of unhoused people on its streets could reach levels not seen since the financial crash more than a decade ago. Officials pursued a cut from that ceiling level.

When asked about it last week, Joe Dzvonik, San Luis Obispo County’s principal homelessness analyst, told a reporter that the goal was no longer accurate.

The county submitted its grant application in June — more than a month before the SLO County Board of Supervisors passed an action plan to reduce homelessness by half by 2027.

Meanwhile, Sonoma County’s plan calls for a 10% drop in the number of people living on its streets from 2020 to 2024. But after submitting that target to the state, the county’s homeless census returned an alarming result — that its unsheltered homeless population was moving in the wrong direction, up 23% in the past two years.

Despite the added challenge, Michael Gause, Sonoma County’s Ending Homelessness Manager, remains optimistic that the county will accomplish what it set out to.

“It’s a challenging goal, but we want to be aggressive and be ambitious,” Gause said.

What’s the future for homelessness funding?

Newsom will be meeting Friday with local leaders to discuss the action plans and a statewide agenda for making progress. It is unclear how long the funding freeze could remain in place or what additional requirements he may impose on localities before restoring the flow of state aid.

Jason Elliott, Newsom’s deputy chief of staff, said the governor’s “hope and expectation is that this will be going out in short order.” However, he added that the ball was in the court of local leaders.

“This is not exclusively a data exercise,” Elliott said in an interview. “We’re eager to hear from them on what they’re doing and what the state can do to help them get there.”

Like most jurisdictions, SLO County can last a few months without the money, according to Dzvonik. But come February or March of 2023, local agencies across the state will be depending on that money to maintain shelter beds, continue offering services and potentially expand such initiatives.

In addition to unleashing the funds currently set aside, Dzvonik and other local leaders plan to advocate for permanent homeless funding from the state.

“I see it as a reasonable thing to do as long as it doesn’t go on,” Dzvonik said about the pause. “It’s an opportunity to bring the whole state together and develop a statewide strategy.”

The Tribune of San Luis Obispo’s Stephanie Zappelli contributed to this story.

©2022 The Sacramento Bee. Visit sacbee.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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