A simple solution for sheltering Californians who are homeless

By Michael Rushford, Special to CalMatters

Many state and city leaders believe that the unprecedented homeless population in California is largely the result of a shortage of affordable housing.  

The supposition is that if there were more low-cost housing, a significant segment of the homeless would move in, go to rehab and straighten out their lives.  

Building enough housing required to accommodate the roughly 130,000 people living outside in California would be extremely expensive and would undoubtedly take far longer than many of the homeless can be expected to live.  

Virtually everyone who has actually looked at the homeless population knows perhaps half of them suffer from serious mental illnesses and many are addicted to drugs.  

In a recent speech in Sacramento, Dr. Drew Pinsky noted that the immediate problem is providing shelter to keep people from dying on the streets and treatment to give as many as possible with a chance for recovery.   

As cities and counties struggle to decide whether to refurbish an urban hotel, build a tent city or lease a warehouse for a 100 bed shelter to house some small segment of the homeless, there are vacant properties in every urban county that could be quickly repurposed to provide shelter and services for thousands.  

Sacramento County taxpayers, for example, have paid $2.3 million over the past five years to maintain the vacant Boys Ranch sitting on 140 rural acres with 12 buildings, The Sacramento Bee recently reported. It easily could accommodate homeless who want a secure place to pitch their tents, and perhaps find treatment for their physical and mental health needs.

And yet, officials endlessly ponder what to do with mentally ill and drug addicted people wandering around downtown Sacramento and spending the night under freeway overpasses, on sidewalks or along the American and Sacramento rivers.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, left, and Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, are co-chairs of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s homeless task force. (Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters.)

My guess is that there is similar property in many other parts of the state. 

Other than being prohibited from assaulting each other, there should be no other requirements for those camping at the ranch outside Rancho Murieta. They could come and go as they please. But if they are caught sleeping in the city, the suburbs or along the river, police would take them back to the ranch.

Such an arrangement would comply with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeal’s 2018 decision, City of Boise v. Martin, which prohibits cities from enforcing anti-camping laws unless there is shelter available for the homeless.   

Imagine what could happen if homeless people were moved into such a place. There would be a central location where people who are down on the luck and want and need shelter and services, and downtowns would become much more attractive for the rest of us.

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Michael Rushford is an attorney in Sacramento and president, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, [email protected]. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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