Six months after the Trump Administration blocked Sacramento officials from opening a large homeless shelter under the W-X freeway, Caltrans is allowing the project to move forward anyway.
Caltrans earlier this month signed a lease agreement with Sacramento, allowing the city to move forward with the project on a vacant lot near X Street and Alhambra Boulevard — a key component of the city’s homeless response strategy.
It’s unclear if Joe Biden winning the presidential election played a role in the project’s revival. The Caltrans lease agreement is dated Nov. 17 — about 10 days after media outlets declared Biden had defeated President Donald Trump.
As first reported by The Sacramento Bee, the Trump Administration in May yanked approval for the shelter, along with a shelter planned to open in San Francisco — both on Caltrans land. California Gov. Gavin Newsom had been encouraging cities to open shelters on state-owned sites, including Caltrans properties. But the federal government also has control over Caltrans sites, throwing the projects into uncertainty.
By the time federal officials withdrew approval, the city of Sacramento had already spent $650,000 on paving, permitting and design work for the site near Oak Park. In July, the council voted to hire a construction firm for the project, but it still lacked federal and Caltrans approval, so city officials decided not to start construction.
Caltrans Director Toks Omishakin sent a letter to Federal Highway Administration Division Administrator Vincent Mammano on Oct. 12 asking for approval to open five “temporary emergency” shelters across the state — the W-X site, one in San Francisco, two in San Jose and one in Oakland.
Federal officials have not responded to that letter, Caltrans spokesman Matt Rocco said. Nonetheless, Caltrans has signed leases for the shelters with Sacramento, San Francisco and one in San Jose, Rocco said.
“As the state experiences a second wave of COVID-19 increases and the winter months approach, it is now more important than ever to provide safe shelter for individuals experiencing homelessness,” Rocco said in a statement. “And Caltrans is partnering with the City of Sacramento to do just that through the execution of this lease.”
Now that work is resuming, the Sacramento W-X shelter should be able to open this summer, said City Councilman Jay Schenirer, who represents the area. That’s more than a year later than it was originally set to open.
Unlike Sacramento, San Francisco never stopped moving forward to open its Bayview shelter, even after it lost federal approval, said Jeff Cretan, spokesman for Mayor London Breed. It’s under construction and is set to open next year.
The Sacramento shelter, a semi-permanent tent-like structure, was originally set to shelter 100 adults, but during the coronavirus pandemic it will have a reduced capacity of 50, Schenirer said.
The city opened a similar shelter last month in Meadowview for homeless women. The shelters will cost the city about $10 million each to open and operate for about two years.
While the W-X site sits paved and empty, a large homeless encampment has popped up around the corner, near W Street and Alhambra Boulevard. Those campers will be given first priority to get into the new shelter, Schenirer said.
“We get a very significant number of complaints almost on a daily basis,” Schenirer said. “If we can get this shelter up and start to mitigate the homeless situation within a quarter mile of it, that’ll be a victory not only for those who are getting help through the shelter, but for the neighborhood as well.”
Guests at the W-X shelter will receive medical, mental health and rehousing services. Unlike some shelters, they will be allowed to bring their pets, partners and possessions and will not be turned away for having drugs or alcohol in their system.
Volunteers in January 2019 estimated there are 5,570 homeless people living in Sacramento County, most of whom were sleeping outdoors in the city. When the coronavirus pandemic struck, Newsom launched a program to move homeless people in motel rooms to protect them from the virus. The county has three of those hotels open, while a fourth has closed.
One homeless man died in the River District last week, wrapped in blankets that were wet from the previous night’s rain, according to a Loaves and Fishes news release. That man’s name was Gregory Tarola, and he was 63, according to Sacramento County Coroner Kimberly Gin.
“While the official time and cause of death are unclear, what we do know is that this man will not be the last person to pass away outside in the cold winter months of 2020-2021,” the Loaves and Fishes release read.
Homeless activists are renewing their annual call, urging city and county officials to loosen the criteria required to open warming centers. According to local guidelines, temperatures must hit freezing for three consecutive nights in a row in order for officials to open warming centers. That didn’t happen the last two winters. Overnight temperatures in Sacramento this week are expected to dip into the 30s.