This week, at least two unhoused Sacramento residents died as the first major winter storm of the season hit the region.
By Wednesday, Sacramento City Council declared a local emergency, opening up the downtown library as a warming center to help people find somewhere warm and dry after the soaking rain. But it wasn’t soon enough, as 70-mile-per-hour winds picked up tents from Tuesday night into Wednesday morning.
This isn’t the first time in recent years that unhoused people have died during a storm or freezing conditions. After Greg Tarola was found dead last month wrapped in blankets wet from the previous night’s rain, the city’s original warming shelter criteria of opening only after three consecutive days of freezing weather was dropped to one day.
But as this week’s storm hit, local officials were still debating at Tuesday’s City Council meeting whether to open warming centers and safe places for people to seek shelter indoors.
“Until we get people indoors in these encampments in the right way, nothing is going to change …” Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said at Tuesday’s meeting. “There’s a huge storm out there. People are going to die tonight, and it’s just business as usual.”
Steinberg joined Randol White on CapRadio’s Insight to talk about available warming centers and how the city plans to address homelessness moving forward.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
On Steinberg's thoughts about the slow opening of the warming center this week
I [got] a text or an email from Loaves and Fishes saying that these encampments [outside in the storm], many of them are literally blowing away … I've been fighting this battle for the last four years. I've been leading. I called for the end of the three-day temperature criteria … But I will tell you where we are falling down, and that's around implementation — that is, the sense of urgency to actually get the roofs built, whether they be tiny homes, whether they be temporary housing or shelter, or permanent housing.
So it just struck me, we should not spend another moment debating about the quality of the tent encampments — we should be spending all of our time, all of our energy, all of our resources, getting thousands of people under a roof. That's what I believe. That's what I've always believed [and] that's what I'm fighting for.
On what decisions came out of Wednesday’s local emergency meeting
Number one, we decided we are no longer going to be bound by this artificial [temperature] line … It doesn’t matter. It’s cold. So what we did yesterday was declare our own state of emergency. That frees us from those temperature criteria. … It is my intent as mayor of this city that we have multiple warming centers open every single night until the end of winter.
One of the problems with this temperature criteria is that you provide a warming center one night because it’s 32 degrees, it goes up to 34 the next night, and no, no longer eligible. Wrong. We should be providing this kind of shelter every night during the winter, during inclement weather at multiple locations, and that’s what we decided to do.
Secondly, we put forward a million dollars, and it’s going to go up — we’re going to go higher than that to make sure that we can not only open public facilities but also many of the faith-based groups and nonprofits that come forward who have the capacity to shelter large numbers of people, we will assist as well.
The federal government, now under the new Biden administration, thank God, is going to reimburse cities 100% for the cost [of setting up shelters], and so we will front the money. We have $40 million set aside for affordable housing that we want to use for the long term. And we’ll front as much of that as we have to, knowing that we’ll get reimbursed by the federal government.
On the deaths during this week’s storm
I don't know the exact cause of their deaths. I'm deeply saddened, heartbroken. These are human beings with families who were loved, undoubtedly, who had lives, whatever hard times they hit on. But for the grace of God, there go I. And no more. I mean, it's again, I feel strongly and I don't want to be defensive about this, but I'm not a ‘Johnny come lately’ to this issue. I've been passionate and leading on this for years, and we've made some progress. People don't realize we actually have gotten thousands of people indoors in Sacramento because of our collective efforts, including the county as well. We have. It's just the numbers entering homelessness far outweigh the numbers we've gotten off the streets, but we need to do better. All of us and the deaths of two human beings are unacceptable.
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