Over most of the last five years, homelessness has been on the rise in Sacramento County. Unfortunately, even as demand for services to the homeless increases, the same budget cutbacks that are affecting local governments throughout the state make it difficult to provide those services.
With scarce resources and great need, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson did what many city officials are beginning to do – he looked to the community for help. He established the “Sacramento Steps Forward” program, part of a ten-year plan to eradicate homelessness in the county. A key aspect of Sacramento Steps Forward is the Winter Sanctuary Program which looks to community involvement for its success.
Winter Sanctuary is described as a “rotating, nightly, interfaith shelter,” and is led by Volunteers of America and Sacramento Steps Forward. The Sacramento Steps Forward website describes how it worked:
The program involved the participation of 24 different interfaith congregations throughout the Sacramento area. Each night, a scheduled congregation would open its doors to up to 100 homeless individuals. Guests received a sleeping bag and then were bused to and from the staging area.
An article in PublicCEO noted:
During a twenty week period between December 1, 2010 and March 31, 2011, Winter Sanctuary sheltered 550 unduplicated guests.
Mayor Johnson also called upon volunteers and faith groups to pay for and prepare two meals (breakfast and dinner) for guests. In addition to food and shelter, local congregations provided games, conversation, haircuts and other services to their homeless guests. By the end of the winter, two thousand volunteers participated in the program while other Sacramento residents, businesses, and civic associations provided additional financial support.
Given the program’s success during the winter of 2010-2011, the city immediately began preparing for the next winter. In July, Sacramento Steps Forward announced that Ben Burton, former executive of the Miami Coalition for the Homeless Inc., would serve as their new executive director. Currently, he is working to fundraise and recruit congregations and organizations willing to serve as hosts or partners for the 2011-2012 Winter Sanctuary program.