Whose job is it anyway?

Mayor Darrell Steinberg addresses Sacramento City Council on the evening of a deadly storm that killed at least six unhoused residents last January.

My mother often told a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody: There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t. Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have.

On Jan. 26, with freezing temperatures and strong winds projected, Sacramento’s leaders failed to protect their unhoused neighbors from imminent danger. The complicated bureaucracy in which the city and county share the responsibility of service delivery failed. People died.

“People are going to die tonight,” Mayor Darrell Steinberg shouted at the council meeting. “We can’t get a goddamn warming center open,” he added, blaming county guidelines which require centers to open when three consecutive days of freezing temperatures are expected–a bar that had not been met. 

Council members shared concerns, but no one made a motion to address the problem.

City Manager Howard Chan, whose authority allows him to allocate discretionary funds without approval, took no action. 

The mayor, the council and Chan all failed to call the county and ask for help. The county did what they were asked: Nothing.

When push came to shove, Sacramento’s leaders figuratively froze. As a result, people froze in the streets. Now, Everybody is blaming Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have.

While the bifurcated process and shared roles of city and county are problematic, they are not entirely to blame. City leadership often fails to use available tools, and their own political power, to address Sacramento’s problems. It wasn’t always this way.

On Christmas Eve in 2016, newly elected Mayor Darrell Steinberg, Sacramento City Council, and the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors worked in tandem to open a warming center in spite of the county’s three-day rule. All but three of today’s council members were serving at the time. Last month’s challenge is one they jointly overcame four years ago, with all the powers they still possess. 

In 2018 the mayor championed a tax increase, Measure U, in part to address affordable housing and homelessness. Two years later, the critical resources voters approved have not been allocated to solve this problem.

Instead, in 2020 the mayor revived a thrice rejected proposal to change the city governance to a “strong mayor” model: Measure A. Among other things, he claimed it would help address the city’s housing issues. Voters rejected it.

City and county leadership share the responsibility of serving our unhoused population and must work together. Measure A would have done nothing to change this dynamic, or the need for the city to be an effective partner. In 2016, Sacramento’s leaders successfully collaborated to help our unhoused neighbors; on the night of this year’s storm, they did nothing.

No amount of power can counteract such profound inaction.

The week after the storm, the mayor and council voted to open emergency warming centers, worked with the county to extend services throughout the winter, and approved the mayor’s plan to build 63 “tiny homes” within 50 days. They also approved Councilmember Eric Guerra’s motion for $31.5 million in funds for affordable housing, sheltering and other homelessness resources. These solutions were always available to them. They simply had to act.

Good leaders know that talking about the work is not the same as doing it. Rather than fixating on problems, they work with other leaders to find and implement solutions for their communities. And they don’t wait for permission to do the right thing. 

Sacramento’s leaders have the power to solve complex problems. But only if Somebody takes action.

Note: A previous version of this op-ed was submitted to the Sacramento Bee on Feb. 3, 2021, for consideration in response to an opinion piece by Marcos Breton titled “Sacramento, check your outrage: You didn’t want a mayor with the power to spare the homeless.” It was not published.


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Samantha Corbin
Samantha is a small business owner and entrepreneur. A native Californian, she has raised her daughter and a gaggle of rescue animals in Sacramento since 2002.