Sacramento County is in the midst of a challenge it has not seen before. Between severe weather events, a continued public health pandemic and housing instability, the challenges of responding to the needs of the homeless population are greater than ever.
The County continues to adapt and respond in real time and develop and operate ongoing programs and services that deliver real and permanent change.
Sacramento County launched a weather-specific motel voucher program
For many years, the Sacramento County Department of Human Assistance (DHA) has run a motel voucher program for persons experiencing homelessness that are particularly vulnerable due to age, illness, injury or other highly vulnerable situations such as families with children. The program provides them with short motel stays in a moment of crisis, coupled with on-going supportive services.
In an effort to increase sheltering capacity over the winter months, the Continuum of Care (CoC) Board approved up to $600k in additional funding in December to expand the motel voucher program into a weather-related response. Approximately 60 additional motel rooms are now available for a minimum of three nights or longer during extended weather events.
This approach offers several advantages to warming centers:
- It relies on outreach partners to identify unsheltered people who would not otherwise be reached.
- It offers several days of stay (compared to an overnight stay at a warming center).
- It allows people to shelter with pets and partners and in privacy, which is critical during COVID-19.
- It coordinates transportation for unsheltered people to the motels.
The following criteria will trigger a weather-related response:
- Nighttime lows of 37 degrees or lower for two or more days within a five-day span; or
- Rain for two or more consecutive days (forecast 60% or more); or
- One day or night of rain combined with nighttime lows of 32 degrees or lower.
Because of the existing infrastructure already in place, DHA was able to activate this critical effort in advance of Tuesday’s big storm and bring people into shelter in just a few days. The County will continue these efforts for upcoming storms.
DHA is working to expand capacity at its existing homeless shelter for increased weather respite response.
Cities may open warming centers under any conditions
Sacramento Emergency Operations Plan (EO), operated out of County Office of Emergency Services has Severe Weather Guidance to use in the event of severe weather situations that require emergency response for local governments, non-governmental organizations and other agencies in preparing and coordinating response efforts.
This criteria is a guide to trigger an emergency response on a countywide scale but does not limit cities within the county from opening a warming center under any conditions they see fit and offers material support when they do. The Sacramento County Office of Emergency Services helps support such efforts with food, water, blankets and COVID-19 safety guidance provided by the County Public Health officer.
In anticipation of a weather event, the County organizes a call that includes each city and special districts to ensure seamless collaboration and consistent messaging.
In addition, DHA has an eligibility specialist on location to connect people to mainstream services such as cash, food and medical benefits.
Regional Coordination and Response Efforts
Responding to the unique needs of people experiencing homelessness is most successful using a large-scale, collaborative model. County, cities, non-profits and advocates all play a critical role in effective outcomes.
Sacramento County uses a multi-departmental response method that includes Human Assistance, Health Services (both behavioral and primary), Probation, Sheriff and District Attorney, to ensure that people experiencing homelessness receive services that address any issues that are barriers to permanent housing and long-term stability.
Additionally, the County participates in regional collaboration and planning, participating in the City/County Continuum of Care and leading the effort on the County Homeless Plan.
While the County administers safety net services that support many people experiencing homelessness throughout the County and all the cities within, such as behavioral health, general assistance and adult protective services, those programs alone cannot address all the needs of the homeless population. Many specialized homeless services, such as outreach, sheltering and re-housing supports are best provided through jurisdictions partnering together, the CoC and local community organizations.
- Countywide COVID-19 homelessness response, including encampment sanitation services, medical isolation and preventative quarantine.
- Countywide behavioral health services, including drug and alcohol treatment and mental health services.
- Record expungement services for persons experiencing homelessness.
- Sheltering services throughout the county, including family shelters, domestic violence shelters, and scattered site and congregate sheltering for individuals.
- Rehousing assistance through CalWORKs, behavioral health and specialized programs.
- Family Emergency Shelter.
- Outreach services within unincorporated county and countywide behavioral health mobile services and outreach.
- Countywide weather respite voucher program.
COVID Response for People Experiencing Homelessness
Sacramento County partners in a variety of ways in homelessness response with cities, providers, and the Continuum of Care. The Sacramento COVID-19 Homelessness Response Team is the most successful example of a regionally collaborative effort to respond to a crisis – each organization focusing on one part of the response to ensure full coverage. The County, City of Sacramento and Sacramento Steps Forward (as the Continuum of Care entity) pooled funds awarded by the state to maximize efficiency and streamline response. To date, less than 50 persons experiencing homelessness have tested positive for COVID-19 and more than 1,500 of the most vulnerable have been sheltered and isolated.
There is no one single solution to housing Sacramento County’s unhoused residents, and due to current conditions such as the COVID-19 pandemic, lost jobs and skyrocketing rent, it may get worse before it gets better. Through dedicated people, funding and collaboration, our region can take significant steps towards the goal of ending homelessness.