Last week, with rain in the forecast and temperatures dropping into the 30s, the city of Sacramento opened two warming centers for those looking to stay out of the cold. The centers, activated at the city's Outreach and Engagement Center on Auburn Boulevard and the North Fifth Street Shelter lobby, opened on Nov. 28 and will remain open from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. through Dec. 8.
In previous years, the centers have come under fire by advocates for being temporary and hard to reach for Sacramento’s estimated 5,000 unhoused people. That said, more than 70 people have visited the centers since they opened last week, according to city officials.
36-year-old Omie Williams is currently unhoused. She said she almost gave up on reaching the warming center at the Outreach and Engagement Center.
“I couldn't get out here,” she said. “I didn't have the bus pass or the willpower or the strength to come out here and walk from the lightrail.”
However, Williams said she had a pre-existing relationship with Hope Cooperative, the organization which runs the shelter, and they were able to connect her to a ride from the River District, where she often stays outside in a tent.
“If I didn't come here tonight, I didn't know what I was going to do,” she said.
In previous years, the Outreach and Engagement Center, located at the city’s former Powerhouse Science Center and Museum, was only activated as a respite center during weather related events — for cooling in the summer and warming in the winter. In September, the city opened the facility as a full-time respite center, regardless of the weather. Guests who are referred there by outreach workers can stay for three to five days, and are connected to resources through the Hope Cooperative.
People who have come to the Auburn Boulevard facility for the walk-up warming center enter through a metal gate and are briefly interviewed before being escorted inside. In the foyer, staff ask about health concerns, intake guests’ possessions, and check if a guest is in the Homeless Management Information System. According to Sacramento Steps Forward, the organization tasked with tracking homelessness in the region, this system is a community-wide database used by homeless service providers to “collect confidential client-level data including demographics, history of homelessness and services accessed, and service needs.”
The building has port-a-potties, portable showers, a kennel area, a small dining hall, a dorm for men and women and a lounge space with recliners.
During a visit on Nov. 29, the center was clean and relatively quiet. A Christmas tree with multicolored lights stood in the corner of the lobby, and the Netflix comedy show “Wednesday” played quietly in the lounge. Eight staff run the place at a time, some of them formerly homeless themselves.
The dorms do not have bunk beds; staff provide fold-out mattresses for people to place on the ground, along with a blanket. Although the shelter is meant to temporarily house single adults, one room was cordoned off with a sheet. Behind it, a family was settling down for the night. Hope Cooperative CEO Erin Johansen said the site has to be flexible.
“It's so hard out there that, right now, the city is really trying to help as many people as they can,” Johansen said. “So they're like, you know, ‘make it work, figure it out.’ And that's kind of what we're doing here.”
Johansen said that extends, too, to time that people spend at the respite center. Although it’s intended for people to stay for three to five days, in some cases, it takes longer to help people find their next step. Staff say that 65-year-old Bailey Nelson has been at the shelter for three weeks. Nelson says there aren’t many options for him, and he’s grateful to have been able to stay for longer to get on his feet.
“I had to be stationary somewhere in order to make movement,” he said. “And this was the place to do that.”
The Outreach and Engagement Center normally has capacity to serve 50 people, but during weather-related emergencies capacity is expanded to serve up to 100 people. Johansen said if the center reaches full capacity staff will be “wall-to-wall” busy.
“This was not designed to be a long term shelter” she said. “When you go into a shelter that is designed that way, you might have cots all over the place. This is just bare bones mats on the floor. It was designed to be very short term, [for] triage and warming.”
As for Williams, she was happy to have any accommodation. During the winter, she said she tries to utilize every option to stay warm, like searching for clothes or an extra blanket to sleep on and trash bags to cover her tent.
“Tonight, I'm concentrating on rest and my prayers, and I'm just getting a clear mind, you know, and knowing that I'm safe and I'm okay right now,” she said.
Williams said she hopes the Outreach and Engagement Center will let her stay longer, and that she can connect with some of Hope Cooperative’s resources to help get into a more stable situation.
“I just think that there needs to be more long term consistency, shelter and safe places for homeless people to keep their stuff,” she said. “Not only a respite 23-hour solution, but a permanent solution.”
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