Guest opinion column by County Supervisor Sue Frost–
If someone were to offer to give you a modest down payment on a car that you otherwise couldn’t afford, but left you the burden of paying expensive monthly loan payments, repairs, insurance, registration, gas, and all other ongoing expenses, would you consider that car to be “free?”
I wouldn’t, and I suspect most readers of the Citrus Heights Sentinel wouldn’t either, because you would now be obligated to pay for something that you cannot afford. Yet that is exactly what a recent article from another newspaper claimed when they suggested that Sacramento County has “ignored millions in free money for homelessness.”
To fill you in on the backstory, there is a federal grant that local municipalities can apply for called “Whole Person Care,” which would fund a program designed to help move the homeless people who use emergency rooms the most into more appropriate facilities for treatment. Sacramento City wanted to partner with Sacramento County to accept the money and jointly run a program. Sounds great, right?
Unfortunately, accepting this money doesn’t make sense for several reasons.
First, this money isn’t for ongoing funding, it’s for a three year program – and after that three years is up we will be left to fund ourselves a program that costs $64 million dollars annually. We would then need to either boot the homeless back to overcrowded hospitals, cut funding from other countywide services like police and roads, or raise taxes. None of those options are particularly attractive.
Second, the money would need to be used in a way that isn’t very helpful to Sacramento County. This is because the money doesn’t allow the spending on the two things we need most to help solve this problem, which are mental health services and housing. We don’t need money to more efficiently connect the homeless with services, because we simply don’t have enough services to connect them with (as can be witnessed by looking at the huge wait-lists we currently have).
And last, in order to get the money Sacramento County would have to match the federal funds at a time when we have virtually no reserves. There is a significant cost associated with participating in this program, in addition to the fact that if we couldn’t demonstrate improvements in certain health outcomes, the federal portion of the money could be withheld.
In the end, Sacramento County decided to not apply for the “free money,” and I am in complete support of that decision.
Instead of risking our money on this program, Sacramento County has focused its time and resources on programs that will offer more of what the homeless actually need. To help mental health we are investing in three new mental health crisis centers, opening a mental health urgent care center that can service 300-400 people, and increasing capacity at the Mental Health Treatment Center. And to help the housing problem we are creating a 24-hour homeless shelter to house 75 people each night, redesigning the family shelter system to provide housing for 33 families each night, and providing a shelter to high-risk families who cannot be diverted to permanent housing immediately while we assist them to find housing.
I recognize that these programs are not going to eliminate homelessness, because to be honest, we could probably throw hundreds of millions at this problem and still not eliminate homelessness (San Francisco spent $275 million on homelessness last year, and their problem is only getting worse). But our programs are a good step forward to address our immediate needs while also refraining from spending outrageously. There are roughly 2,000 un-sheltered homeless on any given night in Sacramento County, and 1,000 churches – perhaps a good, free solution would be to proactively help engage the faith community as part of the solution and build volunteer support.
Sacramento County Supervisor Sue Frost formerly served as a Citrus Heights councilwoman and currently represents District 4, which includes Citrus Heights. Frost will hold her next community meeting on Oct. 27 at 7:30 a.m. at the Coco’s restaurant located at 7887 Madison Ave. She can be contacted at (916) 874-5491, or SupervisorFrost@saccounty.net.
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