By Theresa Clift
May 22, 2020 —
The Trump administration has yanked approval for major homeless shelter projects it previously approved in Sacramento and San Francisco.
The move undermines a critical component of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to shelter the homeless on state land and throws nearly two dozen potential shelter projects across the state into question, according to letters the Federal Highway Administration sent the California Department of Transportation earlier this month.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said the city must find a way to still open a 100-bed shelter near X Street and Alhambra Boulevard it planned to open in early fall.
“We need this project,” Steinberg said. “The (Trump) administration often accuses California of standing in the way of building more housing, especially for vulnerable people. Why is the federal government standing in the way of such an important project?”
Steinberg has raised the issue with White House officials and is hopeful federal approval will be restored, said Mary Lynne Vellinga, Steinberg’s spokeswoman.
City Councilman Jay Schenirer, who represents the area and proposed the project over a year ago, agreed.
“This is just ridiculous,” Schenirer said. “We are trying to meet a challenge with our unsheltered population, we have a community that is supportive, we have the funding to do it and we can put 100 unsheltered folks under a roof with services.”
Vincent Mammano, California division director for the Federal Highway Administration, sent a letter to Caltrans officials May 7 informing them the federal government was withdrawing approval for the Sacramento shelter as well as a 200-bed shelter planned to open this spring in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood. The letter also says the agency is reviewing approvals for two other shelters in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood as well as one in Los Angeles’ San Pedro neighborhood. Caltrans “improperly issued” the National Environmental Policy Act determination for those sites, the letter says.
After questions surfaced about the San Francisco and LA locations, the agency re-examined its approval of the Sacramento site, a May 14 letter from FHA to Caltrans said.
Although the site is actually a vacant lot located underneath portions of Highway 50 and Highway 99, it’s considered in the “highway right of way,” according to the letter. FHA has a policy to use the “right of way” exclusively for transportation uses “in order to ensure traffic can flow as safely and efficiently as possibly,” with rare exceptions, the letter said.
In addition, when the agency sells or leases “right of way” land, it wants to get fair market value for it in order to use that money for other highway projects, the letter said.
That policy directly contradicts a new California state law that allows cities to lease properties from Caltrans for $1 per month for emergency shelters or feeding programs, which is what Sacramento was planning to do.
OTHER CALIFORNIA SHELTERS IN DANGER
The move could also nix other homeless projects planned on Caltrans-controlled property across the state.
“Caltrans is using or planning to use its highway (right of way) for temporary homeless facilities in nearly two dozen locations throughout the State,” the May 14 highway administration letter reads. “In looking at these locations together, it appears that Caltrans is looking to dispose of its highway (right of way) for less than (fair market value) on a programmatic basis.”
Caltrans Director Toks Omishakin refuted that claim in a letter he sent FHA Monday. He pointed to several state and federal laws that he said allow the projects to move forward, and urged the federal officials to restore approval.
The administrations “unexpected revocations of the right of way use approvals have created a highly unfortunate situation for all parties,” Omishakin wrote in the letter.“ Caltrans has already executed agreements with our local public partners. These local partners have already entered into third party construction contracts and expended significant funds in furtherance of the leases.”
The federal government’s move to block the shelters contradicts actions Newsom and state leaders have taken to make state land available for homeless shelters.
In February, Newsom released a list of 286 state-owned properties suitable for homeless shelters. That list included many Caltrans properties, including the Sacramento site under Highway 50.
Newsom’s office declined a request for comment other than to provide the letter from Caltrans.
City officials “remain optimistic” the site can be used for the project, city spokesman Tim Swanson said. The city has already spent $650,000 on paving, permitting and design work, Swanson said.
The Sacramento City Council was set to approve the construction contract at its meeting Tuesday, but the item was pulled from the agenda at the last minute.
Philip Mangano, former homelessness czar for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said he is also optimistic the shelters will still be able to open, but called the highway administration move “counterproductive.”
“It doesn’t make sense,” said Mangano, a member of Newsom’s homelessness task force that Steinberg co-chairs. “Making these decisions inside the beltway in Washington is a little tone deaf to what’s occurring on the ground in California.”
HOMELESS CRISIS WORSENS AMID COVID-19
There are an estimated 5,570 homeless people living in Sacramento County, a January 2019 count estimated, most of them are sleeping outdoors in the city of Sacramento.
California’s homeless crisis has grown even worse amid the coronavirus crisis, Mangano said.
County, city and nonprofit officials have moved more than 500 homeless people into motel rooms and trailers to prevent the spread of the highly-contagious virus, said Sacramento County spokeswoman Janna Haynes. As of Tuesday, 433 people were staying in motels and two were in medical trailers at Cal Expo, Haynes said.
President Trump has long criticized California’s liberal policies and sought to embarrass the leaders of the state’s large cities about their growing homelessness crisis. But Trump and Newsom have been praising each other lately for coronavirus response, Mangano pointed out.
During a visit to Los Angeles last year, Trump stressed that he wanted to get the homeless off the streets and even discussed moving them into government-backed facilities, the Washington Post reported.
Despite the FHA letters, San Francisco is moving forward with its Bayview shelter under state approval, said San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s spokesman Jeff Cretan.
“Like cities across California, San Francisco needs more housing and shelter for people living on our streets,” Cretan said in a statement. “We are moving forward with building a Navigation Center that will provide 200 beds and critical services in the Bayview neighborhood, which is a part of our city that has been disproportionately impacted by homelessness. People need help, and we need to put vacant land in our City to use.
In LA, the 100-bed shelter on Caltrans property is stillset to open this summer, said Alex Comisar, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s spokesman.
“Mayor Garcetti is grateful to our state and federal partners for making additional Caltrans property available to us for bridge housing, and we are moving full steam ahead on our Beacon project in San Pedro,” Comisar said in a statement. “The mayor will continue working to make more land available for housing, and calls on Washington to make sure the path is clear for the use of these designated Caltrans properties across the state.”
There are other shelters operating on Caltrans-controlled property in the state. San Francisco’s 186-bed Division Street shelter, located in the middle of a freeway on/off ramp, is a former Caltrans storage lot. Sacramento is looking to model the W/X shelters after that shelter, which is located in a semi-permanent tent-like Sprung structure officials call a “navigation center.”
Sacramento homeless guests would receive a bed, meals, showers, as well as help finding housing, medical and mental health services, and help getting government documents like state IDs. Guests would not be screened for drugs and alcohol and would be allowed to bring their pets, partners and possessions.
Meanwhile, a similar large shelter for women on city-owned land in Sacramento’s Meadowview neighborhood is set to open in late June and is being constructed this month, officials said. The city also has a large shelter at the Capitol Park Hotel downtown, but its capacity has been decreased amid the virus and it’s set to close in October.
The W/X site, next to Bob’s Glass in North Oak Park, has been vacant “forever,” Schenirer said.
It could remain that way.
This article courtesy of the Sacramento Bee
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