September 22, 2010; Source: Sacramento Bee | Sacramento County has generally given as much as $29 million annually for homeless services such as emergency shelters, transitional and permanent housing, and other programs. According to the Sac Bee, the county plans to turn over homeless services to a to-be-formed homeless group that would “more easily solicit money from private citizens and businesses and be more flexible in structuring services.”

One nonprofit leader suggests that the motivation is more money than flexibility. “Given the budget challenges that everyone is facing, it’s clear that this is not a flash in the pan,” said Chet Hewitt, president and CEO of Sierra Health Foundation, one of the groups involved in the effort. “With this kind of a partnership, you can make limited dollars go further.”

Due to budget cuts, according to the Bee, the County will no longer have money available for homeless programs as of the end of February 2011, though officials are trying to find money to keep public programs going until June, by which time they hope the new nonprofit will be up and running. The Sierra Heatlh Foundation, a supporter of the idea, has funded a “study mission” for public officials to visit Columbus, Ohio to visit the nonprofit Community Shelter Board which they hope can serve as a model for Sacramento’s program.

Other communities have followed Columbus’ lead. Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans are among the cities that have established nonprofits or joint powers authorities to run homeless programs. While the promoters of this idea focus on increased flexibility and private donations, it’s clear from Sacramento County’s side that the money problems are severe. For example, the county’s animal care division has had its budget slashed by half in the last two years and has had to raise money through flea markets, bake sales, and other events. “This is the future,” the county’s animal care director said.

Nothing wrong with nonprofits running major programs and receiving government approval and contracts to do so, but when the contracts come with reduced funding and expectations that private contributions, especially during a recession, will be able to fill government budget holes, that’s a tough responsibility for nonprofits to carry out.—Rick Cohen