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Guest Column: Program that paid homeless to work ended in failure. Here’s why

By County Supervisor Sue Frost–
Two years ago, I wrote a column for The Sentinel outlining why I thought Sacramento County was in need of a work program for people who are homeless. 

In March 2019, I put theory into reality and officially rolled out a one-year trial program that would not only employ people who are homeless, but also work to beautify Sacramento County at the same time.  I promised you that after the trial was completed, I would report back on how effective the program was.

I am sad to report that the program ended largely in failure – but we did learn some important lessons.  I want to take this opportunity to explain to you why it failed, and what we learned.  But before that, I want to give you a refresher on exactly how the program functioned.

Forty homeless people were planned to be identified who were both willing to work and clean from drugs and alcohol.  Shelter would be secured for them, and they would clean the American River Parkway for minimum wage pay in the morning and then go through a job training program in the construction industry in the afternoon.

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After leaving the program, they would then get help in finding employment by getting introduced to employers, being placed in internships, and receiving certificates that would enable them to earn more than minimum wage.  

Unfortunately, we were only able to get 8 people out of a goal of 40 enrolled in the program, with even less graduated.  By far, the biggest reason for this failure was because the people in our program could not stay off drugs.

Not only could they not stay clean, but we couldn’t even find people who wanted to try getting clean.  And we aren’t talking just about drugs like marijuana, we are talking about extremely dangerous drugs like methamphetamine and crack cocaine. 

There were other problems with the program as well, such as showing up to work on time and a hesitance to work specifically in the construction industry.  But those problems paled in comparison to the drug abuse. 

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The last official homeless count done less than a year ago showed that Sacramento County has over 5,500 homeless people living within our borders.  And out of those 5,500, we could only find 8 who were willing to be drug-free and enroll in the program. 

This is a startling statistic, and one that has caused me to learn two important lessons from this endeavor.

The first lesson I learned is that we must solve the underlying problems that homeless people have before we can work on job training.  It is a wasted effort and a drain on the taxpayers for no benefit. We have to solve their drug and alcohol dependence before we can expect them to responsibly hold down a job.

The other lesson I learned is that the data we receive from the federally mandated point-in-time homeless survey cannot be trusted.  In the most recent iteration of that survey from 2019, the data told us that only 9% of homeless people claim alcohol or drugs prevents them from keeping a job or maintaining stable housing.  An article in one Sacramento paper even claimed this data proves it is a “Myth” that homeless people all use drugs. 

At the time I severely questioned this data, but now I know for certain that it is faulty.

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Even though this program itself was not successful, I am still glad that we did it and think there is great value to learning the lessons that we have.  I also take great personal issue with new government programs that are started and turn out to be ineffective, yet get funded for eternity – so I am happy that we have quickly changed directions once we found out things weren’t working.  

I still believe that finding jobs for people who are homeless is an important piece to this overall problem that we are not looking close enough at.  But I now realize with much greater clarity that there are bigger problems we have to get a handle on first.

Sue Frost, supervisor
Sue Frost

Sacramento County Supervisor Sue Frost formerly served as a Citrus Heights councilwoman and currently represents District 4, which includes Citrus Heights. She can be contacted at (916) 874-5491, or

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