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A homeless encampment is shaded by a tree in Sacramento, Calif., on Aug. 12.Rich Pedroncelli/The Associated Press

Wander around the downtown streets near the state capital buildings, and you marvel at how pristine they are.

No homelessness problem here, you think.

But venture a little further afield, closer to the borders of the downtown core, in the parks and overpasses that ring California’s sixth-largest metropolitan area (population: 525,041) and that image changes. You begin to see in jarring detail just how pervasive homelessness is in Sacramento, Calif., ranking it among the worst in the state.

The numbers are staggering.

Sacramento County’s unhoused population soared to a record 9,300 in 2022, up 67 per cent since 2019. The number that year was 5,570. About 5,000 of the new total are homeless people living within the city limits; the others are in nearby neighbourhoods.

The city now has a larger unhoused population than San Francisco, which has about 350,000 more people. Within its city limits, there were about 4,400 homeless people in 2022, according to official figures.

California has the worst homelessness problem in the U.S., and, no surprise, its generally mild-to-warm climate has a lot to do with it. But Florida has a warm climate as well, and it’s not grappling with nearly the same level of problem. Some blame California’s progressive politics for not tackling the homelessness problem before it got out of control, but that’s too simplistic.

Homelessness is not an issue governments solve by “being tough” on these people. But it’s clear that it is a problem that can get away from you if you don’t attack it in a concerted, focused way early on. Now, California is investing billions in low-cost housing, but that takes time. In fact, it can take years. In the meantime, the homeless population grows.

Governor Gavin Newsom has made grappling with the state’s homeless population his No. 1 priority. He has tied state funding to homelessness-reduction targets and was appalled when cities sent in their plans to tackle the issue in the next couple of years – Sacramento had the least ambitious target in the state.

Its goal? Preventing homelessness from rising beyond 71 per cent of existing levels.

“I thought it was a typo,” Mr. Newsom told the L.A. Times.

The amount of money sent to the Sacramento region to address its homelessness crisis nearly tripled to US$191-million between 2019 and 2021. Many are asking why there has been so little progress in bringing numbers down with so much money being spent to address the problem.

Turns out, building new accommodations takes time. Finding hotels and other facilities to convert into housing doesn’t happen overnight, as cities around the world are discovering.

But there is little question that Sacramento is lagging other cities in the state in terms of delivering affordable housing. A report from May, 2022, by the non-profit California Housing Partnership found Sacramento County has a shortfall of nearly 60,000 affordable homes for its lowest-income renters. Some politicians are tiring of the slow pace of progress and demanding to see tangible results before the city receives further homelessness grants. Housing advocates say they can’t build housing without the grant money, which gives you an idea as to why this problem isn’t being solved quickly.

Meanwhile, the homelessness problem is exploding at the same time as crime rates. Sacramento police reported that early 2022 saw a 31-per-cent increase in robberies and a 12-per-cent increase in aggravated assaults over the previous year. The first quarter of 2022 also saw a 33-per-cent increase in rapes compared to the same time the previous year. The city’s drug problem is worse than ever – another contributing factor to homelessness.

The fact that Sacramento has leapfrogged San Francisco’s homeless population has surprised many, given that it was long viewed as a more affordable community. In Sacramento County, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment rose 30 per cent between January, 2019, and 2022 – from $1,005 to $1,302, according to the website Apartment List. (People in Toronto and Vancouver would kill for those kinds of rents.) People struggling with housing costs in San Francisco started moving into the Sacramento area. It has had a domino effect.

The more you learn about the homelessness problem here, the more hopeless it seems. From 2019 to 2022, Sacramento County increased its shelter capacity by 57 per cent, and yet its homelessness problems are worse than ever.

I’m not sure what lessons there are for Canada here other than the obvious: the more resources and effort you can put into the front end of solving this problem, the better chance you have of preventing it from spiralling out of control.

And that’s the feeling you get here: The homelessness crisis is out of control and may take years to solve, if it ever can be.

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