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Is Placer dumping homeless?

With no emergency shelter of its own, county sends its clients to Sacramento, social workers say.

By Jocelyn Wiener -- Bee Staff Writer

Published 2:15 am PST Sunday, February 22, 2004

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Placer County has an "unwritten policy" of sending homeless people to other jurisdictions, according to five current and former employees of the county's Health and Human Services Department.

In separate interviews with The Bee, the social workers said they either have been told explicitly by their immediate supervisors to send homeless clients to Sacramento, or have felt compelled to do so after being denied other avenues of helping them.

Placer County has no emergency shelter, although several churches, community groups and the county are discussing the possibility of building one.

"If anyone mentions the word 'homeless' or 'seeking shelter,' we're directed to refer them to Cal Expo," said Larry Demates, a former county social worker who retired last month.

Ray Merz, the outgoing director of the Placer County Health and Human Services Department, who announced his retirement earlier this month, said he is aware of no such policy. However, as the county looks to cut $6 million from the HHS budget this month, Merz did say that some managers might be trying to reduce costs.

"I can't say yes or no," he said. "It certainly wouldn't be anything that I'd approve of, but people do try to correct the problem at their level sometimes."

But other social workers said their managers are following a de facto department policy.

"The unwritten policy is to ship people out to Sacramento," said one employee, who didn't want to be identified. "Not one staff person would cross the county line without permission."

In Sacramento, homeless advocates have criticized Placer County officials for transporting homeless people across the county line.

In late December, one such case sparked controversy between the two counties. After a deaf and mute homeless man with one eye and fused fingers was discharged from a Roseville psychiatric facility, a worker in a Placer County vehicle dropped him off outside Loaves & Fishes, a Sacramento homeless organization.

At the time, Placer County officials said they believed the man had connections to Sacramento. Otherwise, they said, they would have cared for him themselves.

"The guy who dropped this guy off was a relatively new employee who didn't know the difference between Loaves & Fishes and Cal Expo," Demates said.

Such practices, if they are taking place, would not be unique to Placer County, said Paul Boden, director of the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco.

"When communities feel like the state isn't going to reimburse them, the feds aren't going to reimburse them, what's cheaper - giving them a bus ticket or actually helping them and assisting them and taking care of their needs?" he said. "When economics supersedes humanity you have 'Greyhound therapy,' and it's been going on a long time."

Still, Garren Bratcher, co-director of Friendship Park at Loaves & Fishes, said that while other neighboring counties occasionally have left homeless individuals on his organization's doorstep, Placer has been the worst offender.

"Placer sticks out in my mind so much because it's happened more than once," he said. "It's been mental health, and one time it was a police car. (Clients) are usually mentally ill, and they don't know what to do with them."

Connie Frank, director of the Maryhouse daytime shelter program at Loaves & Fishes, said she has witnessed similar incidents five or six times.

"I'm personally a little bit more outraged that it happens in Placer County, because I think of Placer as one of the more wealthy counties in the state, and what a shame that that county can't open up a shelter or facility to help people," she said.

According to the U.S. census, median household and per capita incomes in Placer County are more than 30 percent higher than in Sacramento County.

This winter, Placer County officials, churches and nonprofits have met several times to discuss strategies for providing a continuum of care for the homeless. Merz emphasized that the county is aware of the need for a shelter and supports the idea.

"They just don't want to own it and operate it," he said.

Boden says the county has no legal responsibility to do so.

In place of a shelter, Placer County has an emergency motel voucher program through which clients may be placed for a few days in local motels.

But employees said certain supervisors in the department routinely deride their requests for vouchers.

"A new worker will go on the record saying, 'I've got a person who's homeless,' " Demates said. "They'll basically browbeat you with questions. 'How is that our problem?' "

One employee, who has been with the county for several years, said supervisors "absolutely discourage the use of vouchers."

"I've been told on a couple of occasions that we shouldn't hand out vouchers," the social worker said. "At one time (the supervisor) told us all to discourage use of vouchers. I know it's not right, but sometimes I was told to refuse vouchers to people who have mental health problems, too. We have probably sent people to Sacramento when we wish we could have given them vouchers."

Merz said he was not aware that that was a problem.

"That's possible in the crunch that we're facing," he said. "But it's not coming out of this office."

Employees also said some managers had told them not to consider people living in their cars homeless, despite the fact they are described as such by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. One employee described difficulties in finding placement for parents and children fleeing domestic violence situations.

"I've taken numerous phone calls from women who needed a place to stay," the social worker said. "They were in the process of fleeing. As a rule (social) workers are instructed to send the women to Sacramento."

Another employee said that much of the problem may be attributable to "a breakdown in communication." The employee said that, while the county lacks an emergency shelter, several other transitional shelter programs could help mitigate the problem, if social workers were aware of them.

"If you are a supervisor or manager in the Adult System of Care, what prevents you from becoming familiar with the resources that are available?" the worker said. "And what excuse is there for not knowing?"

Leo McFarland, president and CEO of Volunteers of America, which runs the Cal Expo shelter in Sacramento, said he has not seen evidence that Placer sends a disproportionate number of homeless people to Sacramento.

"Placer continues to struggle with how to respond to the issue of homelessness," he said.

"If I were providing services that would bring me into contact with a homeless individual who needed shelter and I couldn't provide that to them in Placer County, I would tell them, 'If you need shelter, there's shelter in Sacramento County.' How controversial is that?"


About the Writer
---------------------------

The Bee's Jocelyn Wiener can be reached at (916) 773-6846 or jwiener@sacbee.com.

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