As she walked her dog Lena around the state Capitol during a quick work break this week, lobbyist Jennifer Fearing counted at least 14 people who appeared to be homeless, hanging out on the streets and sidewalks with their belongings beside them.
Once again, she was confronted by a dilemma that essentially has become a part of her daily routine. Should she give them money? Food? Call a service provider? Is it OK to just walk away and hope that politicians and advocates steer them toward housing and services? What is the right thing to do in the moment?
Such questions have been invading dinner conversations, sparking Facebook debates and challenging the consciences of Sacramento residents as they come face to face with a visibly growing homeless population, particularly in the downtown area.
“I honestly do not know what to do when I walk down the street and see a human being suffering,” Fearing said. “If I give them money or food, am I just making myself feel better? Should I be doing something more to improve their lives? I don’t want my guilt or sense of shame to drive my actions. But how am I supposed to respond?”
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The answer is anything but simple, according to advocates, police and homeless people themselves.
Pope Francis has said that it is “never wrong” to give to someone on the street. But others argue that handing out a cheeseburger or a $10 bill does nothing to solve the larger problem of homelessness, and may encourage people to stay on the streets. Gifts of cash may be turned into bottles of vodka or hits of methamphetamine, critics contend.
“I do worry about that,” said Harold Park, a government worker who passes homeless people each day as he walks across Cesar Chavez Plaza in downtown Sacramento. Park occasionally offers a few bucks to “a person who touches my heart,” he said, but more often buys an extra sandwich at lunch to give to someone who is hungry.
Sacramento police advise against handing out money or food. “By giving homeless folks money, nobody knows what it will be used toward,” said spokesman Bryce Heinlein. Food can be wasted, generate trash and attract rodents. Police recommend donating to nonprofit “community-based organizations” that serve needy people.
A city web page on homelessness links to a blog post from the nonprofit group Invisible People that states: “It’s fine to feed people in a park as long as you are also doing something to get them out of that park!” The city’s site also provides lists of local agencies and programs related to homelessness, including a number for a Mobile Crisis Support Team that responds to mental health emergencies.
A recent survey found that more than 3,600 people are living without permanent shelter on any given night in Sacramento County, an increase of 30 percent since 2015. They are most visible in the downtown area, which in recent years has seen a boom in development including the construction of a new NBA arena, hundreds of apartments, and dozens of new restaurants and bars.
“Every day in front of my building on J Street, I see 25 to 30 people sleeping, sitting, with no food, no bathrooms,” said Tim Boyd, who works for the federal Army Corps of Engineers. “It’s overwhelming.”
A social activist, Boyd said he intends to continue to speak out in public forums about a lack of affordable housing and related issues. In the meantime, he and his colleagues will hand out “care packages” that include soap, deodorant and other items, he said.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who has made ending homelessness a centerpiece of his administration, advised people who are troubled by the issue to support the forthcoming Whole Person Care initiative – which uses federal funds to pay for medical and related services that can get people on the path toward housing – as well as ongoing sheltering and housing programs.
“Helping people survive on a daily basis is crucial,” Steinberg said. “But it is not enough. We need to get people off of the streets.”
But for some, writing a check or supporting future reforms seems distant and unsatisfying.
Fearing, who touched off a spirited debate about homelessness this week on Facebook, is organizing a “brown bag” discussion to address “safe and appropriate” ways of responding to people on the streets. She also plans to start carrying toiletry items and the phone number for the Mobile Crisis Support Team, she said.
On Tuesday morning, Jerome Applewhite, 65 and homeless, sat in his wheelchair in the middle of Cesar Chavez Plaza. Men and women were lying on the pavement in front of the fountain, curled up on benches and resting in the grass. Applewhite said he moved to Sacramento recently from San Francisco, where the chilly air aggravated his aching legs and the urban noise jangled his nerves.
Applewhite said he is searching for a place to live in the capital city, but has found only waiting lists for housing. So he sleeps outside, mostly keeping his own counsel. He never asks for handouts, but “I appreciate when someone gives me a couple of dollars, because I’m going to use it right,” he said.
On Tuesday, he said, a woman gave him $2 that he spent on a bottle of ibuprofen. He gets most of his meals at Loaves & Fishes, when he can find his way to the agency’s campus north of downtown.
Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, said he understands the quandary about whether it is wise to offer handouts to people on the street. “It’s a tremendous moral and ethical issue in our community,” he said.
“I tell people to do whatever they feel comfortable doing,” Erlenbusch said. “Don’t give money to someone if you’re going to walk away wondering whether they’re going to spend it on crack rather than diapers. Yes, some people are going to hustle you. But if you’re going to give someone money, it shouldn’t have strings or conditions attached.”
He said he occasionally offers money or meals to desperate people. But sometimes, he said, the best response to seeing a homeless person is a simple greeting or conversation.
“Homeless people are lonely and invisible,” he said. “Make eye contact. Ask them, ‘How are you doing today?’ Talk to them, and if you can do something to help them in the moment, do it.”
Married couple Doralee Grindler and John Katonah were doing their part on Tuesday at Cesar Chavez Plaza, listening to the stories of strangers.
“There is insurmountable need out here, but we stay true to what we are trying to do,” said Katonah, a retired hospital chaplain, sitting under a banner that read The Respect Project, while Grindler, a psychologist, walked around the plaza.
“The only assistance we offer is the power of listening,” and an occasional bottle of water on a hot day, Katonah said. During the first few months of their project, he said, the couple have heard stories from homeless veterans, elderly men and women, disabled people and the occasional troubled office worker.
“It’s an intangible thing,” Katonah said. “But people seem grateful.”