Grinning cardboard cutouts of Mayor Darrell Steinberg and Steve Hansen, along with other local leaders, propped up by water bottles in seats labeled “Reserved for Honored Guests.”
This was how Sacramento City Council engaged in conversation at the Voices of the Unheard: Unhomed panel on Saturday outside the Latino Center for Arts and Culture, where Sacramentans spoke about their experiences living homeless.
Despite formal invitations from Shaun Dillon, the co-organizer of the event and current candidate for Sacramento County Supervisor, not one local politician was present to uplift “the voices of our unhomed neighbors,” as the event description read. Dillon expressed concern at Sacramento leaders’ failure to respond.
“You’re walking in fecal matter. We’re not allowed to use the bathrooms, yet I hear another half a million dollars will be used to subsidize an ice cream stand,” said 54-year-old David Andre, a speaker who also belongs to the Community Dinner Project and Your Sacramento Art and Revolution.
The panel’s incredulousness at the city’s refusal to acknowledge their needs is nothing new. Pleas to turn on water fountains and open public restrooms–which have remained restricted in public parks despite unhomed individuals’ frequent attempts to stress their lack of alternatives to care for their basic human needs–have been met without action by Sacramento public servants.
Christopher Dickerson, a former foster youth, said he walked 35 miles last week to get to an appointment.
“It doesn’t help to not have water in our community,” he said.
Such conditions and further stigmatization of those without homes have been exacerbated by what panelists see as elected officials’ focus on efforts to make Sacramento a more attractive city. The city and county continue to enforce an anti-camping ordinance despite there being nowhere near enough shelter beds in the region for those who need them.
“The fight for our right to rest has continued,” said 20-year-old Collin Jackson, who goes by CJ.
Kimberley Church, a local professor and the founder of Sac Safe Space, a grassroots effort to provide emergency shelter for unhomed, LGBTQIA+ youth, co-organized the event with the help of Andre.
Dillon originally reached out to Church following a meeting put on by Sacramento Area Congregations Together, a multi-faith organization consisting of over 56 congregations, schools and neighborhood entities with a special interest in helping people of color who have historically experienced discrimination.
However, Dillon said that Sac ACT’s event only permitted elected officials to speak, including Mayor Steinberg and Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli who, in Dillon’s words, “did [their] little song and dance.” It was then he decided to “have a meeting to turn the tables” so the experiences and concerns of unhomed folks would be heard.
“Have you been to the [city council] meetings? They never really pay attention,” Dillon said of councilmembers.
Speakers at the Voices of the Unheard: Unhomed panel detailed how segregationist housing practices and subprime loans have shaped current disparities in affordable housing, especially for people of color.
Despite the formality of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, there has been a “history of exclusion” in Sacramento, said Brenda Flowers, an older African-American woman in a white dress. She and two other women, including Suzanne Hastings, a writer for Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee’s newspaper, also shared grievances on the danger of living on the streets as women. Flowers said she was beaten up recently and was unable to find help from authorities.
“When I tried to [get police, they] made a U-turn around me, showing you don’t matter,” said Flowers.
Steinberg sent a member of his staff to represent his office. The assistant stood behind available seating although Andre invited him to move forward, suggesting, “maybe you should take some notes.”
“No matter what funds are generated, the administration eats them up,” said Andre, critiquing Sacramento Steps Forward, the organization tasked by officials with ending homelessness in the region. Panelists believed SSF’s Housing First philosophy has at times been overshadowed by “innovative” public-private collaborations.
“We’re not moral transgressors,” said Jamie Cook, a former state employee and graduate of California State University, Sacramento. He has been unhomed since last February.
As the panel wound down, moderator James “Faygo” Clark questioned the prohibition of tent cities, casting blame on elected officials who failed to approve Councilmember Allen Warren’s proposal for one in his district earlier this year.
Andre said most of Sacramento’s rising unhomed population “are scared [to speak, as] they have enough bumps in the road.”
“We will be here whether you guys serve us or not,” Andre said, addressing the cardboard politicians who hadn’t budged an inch.