As our weather turns cold and we welcome the much needed rain, it is natural for our thoughts to turn to people who do not have shelter.

It is hard to understand how homeless population estimates are calculated. For example, it is not always obvious when a teenager is couch surfing. Others wandering from place to place and living in the shadows are also hard to identify. Placer County Health and Human Services estimates over 600 homeless people reside in our county. The Downtown Sacramento Partnership has a goal to obtain 2,400 housing beds for a portion of the homeless in their city. Regardless of how these estimates are determined, it is obvious by simple observation that the homeless population is growing in our communities.

Loaves & Fishes has serviced the homeless in downtown Sacramento for over 32 years. With a $5 million budget and a thousand volunteers, the board of directors continues to operate as a grass roots organization, without government funding and a ground level understanding of the homeless population.

Observing successes and lessons learned by Sacramento groups servicing the homeless can benefit us here in Placer County to address the growing problem closer to home.

There are fewer people without a roof over their head in Sacramento compared to several years ago. One reason for the improvement is collaboration of services. Let me explain.

It is easy to become mentally ill when a person is homeless, and vice versa. When mental health care facilities are not available, and a policeman encounters a mentally instable person who is a danger to themselves or others, the only option is the hospital Emergency Room. Nothing is more expensive than an ER and sometimes homeless people visit the ER every other day. The police force, already under pressure to solve more problems than they have time to solve, must wait two or three hours at the hospital until a patient they are admitting gets served. Frequent admission of homeless people is also an overwhelming drain on hospital resources.

Mercy Hospitals and Dignity Health recognized this as a problem they could do something about. In 2013, Dignity Health issued grants requiring multiple organizations including Loaves & Fishes, police, mental health facilities, hospital emergency rooms and others in Sacramento to communicate and work together. These Collaboration Grants were a turning point for improving the homeless situation in Sacramento. Dedicated policemen with clinicians in their cruisers help people get linked into the treatments and facilities they need. A database of the history of each case is accessible by all who serve them.

Loaves and Fishes relies solely on private donations to support its work of feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. Absence of government funding allows more freedom in how services are provided resulting in more effective results.

Sacramento Steps Forward, created by the city and county of Sacramento to get funds from HUD, provides a contrasting example. A requirement to receive funds from HUD is completion of a 25-30 minutes questionnaire probing into details of each homeless person served. Mathematical values assigned to each answer a homeless person gives to these very personal questions are calculated into a Vulnerability Index. Placement on that index determines how soon a person will receive services. There are currently 1,700 people waiting for housing based on the Vulnerability Index in Sacramento.

Mercy hospitals noticed that uncoordinated efforts by multiple service groups to the homeless in Sacramento were ineffective and costly. Forcing service providers to work together through the Collaboration Grant has had a positive impact including the result that 85% of the people who are moved into permanent supportive housing in Sacramento are staying housed.

To learn more about homelessness in Placer County, you can attend free meetings open to the public on the first Thursday of each month from 9-11 am in Auburn City Hall’s Rose Room.

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