Sacramento City Hall and the Sacramento County Administration Center are separated by just one city block. But advocates for the area’s homeless residents say there’s a larger divide between city and county leaders when it comes to providing emergency shelter during cold winter months — one that was exposed last month when six unhoused people died in a powerful storm.
Several dozen people marched from city hall to the county administration center last week, to cross that symbolic divide following a vigil to remember those who lost their lives inside tents and on the streets during the storm.
“Certainly there’s a disconnect. The city says one thing and the county says another,” Joe Smith, advocacy director at Loaves & Fishes, a homeless services center and shelter in Sacramento’s River District, said before the vigil. “Part of our advocacy that we’ve been working on a long time is to try to bring the two sides together.”
Smith added: “They need each other — we all need each other — to come up with solutions that are going to keep people housed. And keep people protected, not just from a storm, but from the elements. These two sides aren’t that far away. All they need to do is have the will to come together and start to build real solutions.”
Both local governments are to blame for failing to protect the area’s unhoused residents ahead of the Jan. 26 storm, according to advocates, activists and some local officials. The weather event brought 70 mile per hour winds that downed trees, power lines and ripped through tent encampments.
Despite knowing the storm was approaching, the city and county declined to open local warming centers that could have helped save lives. Instead, they pointed fingers.
But in the weeks since, those who work with the county’s approximately 5,600 homeless residents say city officials are taking a more aggressive approach to prevent a similar tragedy, while the county is lagging behind.
That’s despite the fact that “counties, not cities,” are funded and staffed to confront homelessness, as Michele Steeb and David Flanagan, authors of a new book on homelessness, wrote in a recent op-ed in The Sacramento Bee.
“Where in the world is the County of Sacramento in all of this?” wrote Steeb and Flanagan, both of whom are affiliated with Saint John’s Program for Real Change, which provides services for women who are unhoused. “Sacramento County must take the reins and lead Sacramento out of this crisis.”
Ann Edwards, the county’s top executive, said in a written response to CapRadio’s questions that the county “is always looking for new and specialized ways to help our homeless neighbors end their homelessness.”
Edwards noted the county helped move unhoused people off the street the day before the storm through a new program that provides motel vouchers before bad weather hits, and expanded capacity at one of its shelters by 35 beds ahead of the storm.
But when asked whether the county should do more in advance of winter storms to get people off the streets, Edwards wrote that the county coroner has stated that “there is no reason for her to believe at this point that the recent storm was the cause of death for any person,” adding that autopsy results are pending.
In response to critics, Edwards wrote:
“Anyone can say that no one government entity is doing enough to curb homelessness, especially when they still see people living unsheltered. However, many of the County programs and services aren’t well known or understood – that doesn’t mean they aren’t working. The County is very proud of its programs and success and continues to push forward to do more.”
She added that many of the county’s homelessness programs are focused on long-term results and rely on limited funding.
At this week’s Sacramento County Board of Supervisors meeting, the first since the January storm, supervisors authorized a county employment and training agency to receive $70,000 from a foundation to provide homeless adults with job-related services.
No discussion of the weather criteria, however, was scheduled, according to a review of the meeting’s agenda.
Change In City’s Approach
While critics say the county is taking a status quo approach, they say city officials have made change. Since the storm, the City Council declared an extreme weather emergency, opened two warming centers for people without shelter and two city garages for people in vehicles. Advocates had called on local officials to open the warming centers for years at the start of each winter, or to at least expand their use.
Also after the storm, the City Council approved $1 million to operate those shelters and help community-based groups open more.
But not everyone’s satisfied with the city’s efforts. Some have heavily criticized Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and City Manager Howard Chan for not acting with enough urgency ahead of the storm.
Last week, the California Homeless Union, a coalition that includes the Sacramento Homeless Union, demanded Steinberg resign or face a recall for his “failure to open warming shelters and widespread destruction suffered by the unhoused in [last month’s] storms.”
Days later, a group of about 50 individuals — most in black masks and clothing, many wearing helmets and protective body armor — marched to Steinberg’s residence. They began “throwing rocks, stealing security cameras, and destroying lighting fixtures” and “barricaded the front door and gate to his residence with landscaping debris that was removed from the yard,” according to the Sacramento Police Department.
During the incident, members of the group decried the mayor’s approach with the unhoused community, posting a sign on his property that read “homelessness is not a crime.” In a statement, the California Homeless Union said it did not condone or participate in the attack, but added that it did not condemn the actions.
“A rock thrown in anger against Mayor Steinberg’s door or trash dumped on his front lawn, if that is what took place, pales by comparison to the indifference of Mr. Steinberg for the unhoused and other marginalized communities,” the group wrote in a statement.
The Sacramento Regional Coalition To End Homelessness denounced the action.
Meanwhile, Steinberg wrote in a statement that the demonstration at his home “was not protest. This was anarchy,”
“I am not backing down. I am more committed than ever to the city I love. I am never giving up on my life's work to fight for the least among us,” Steinberg wrote.
Some have also condemned Chan for deciding not to open the city’s downtown library as a warming center the night of the storm, despite the fact that he received requests from multiple councilmembers to do so, after the city opened it the night before due to cold weather. The regional homelessness coalition called for Chan to be fired.
In a recent article, Chan told The Bee he did not have the authority to open the warming center that night due to county guidelines that recommend cities open the emergency shelter only after three consecutive nights of freezing temperatures. (County officials say the guidance doesn’t block cities from acting). Chan also cited concerns about the action leading to a COVID-19 outbreak.
Asked about his role in ensuring shelter for unhoused residents, a city spokesperson issued a statement on Chan’s behalf.
“As City Manager, nothing is more important to me than the well-being of all Sacramentans. Along with our City Council members, I will continue to work to ensure that we are doing everything possible to protect all of our residents,” the statement read.
Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition To End Homelessness, has praised Steinberg’s plan to finally stop relying on the county’s weather-based guidance to determine when to open emergency warming centers.
For years, advocates had called on local officials to ease that criteria or open shelters throughout winter. Some change took place last fall following the outcry over the death of Sacramento homeless resident Greg Tarola. The 63-year-old was found dead on a sidewalk near Loaves & Fishes under a blanket wet from the previous night’s rain.
The city made it easier to open warming centers and agreed to expand hotel vouchers and repurpose trailers, all to bring people who are homeless indoors during the winter.
But in contrast to the changes made by the city, Erlenbusch said the county government’s continued reliance on weather thresholds to open emergency warming centers is wrongheaded and reckless.
“They’re sticking to the weather criteria that has proven deadly,” Erlenbusch said. “Six of our unhoused neighbors died in a 24 hour span — Jan. 26 to Jan. 27 — in this brutal weather.”
‘A Good Part Of The Blame Lies With The City’
In the past, Sacramento city officials have said the county’s guidance prevented them from opening warming centers, even after cold and rainy weather. It simply wasn’t cold enough, they argued.
But in reality, the city could have opened them whenever they saw fit, said county spokesperson Janna Haynes.
“Warming centers can really be opened up under any circumstances,” Haynes added. “We support the cities in that effort because we just don’t have the infrastructure from a facilities standpoint to open them ourselves. We’re exploring options to change that. But right now, that’s the limitations we’re working under as the county.”
City Councilmember Katie Valenzuela said “a good part of the blame lies with the city,” because officials always knew the county criteria was voluntary.
“So I think we need to own the fact that we were using those guidelines to not take action when we could have,” Valenzuela said, standing outside the county administration center after last week’s vigil and march. “This wasn’t the first death on the streets. This isn’t the first death in the last six months on the streets. So we knew that we could have done something. We knew we needed to do more, but we didn’t.”
There are no plans to change the county’s severe weather guidance, which Haynes said is used for far more than just deciding when warming centers should open.
Erlenbusch said county officials should abandon that criteria, too.
“They should be ashamed of themselves for not moving away from weather activation and using their resources to put as many people in motels as possible,” he added.
The day before the storm, the county brought 36 people who were living on the streets inside through a new program that provides motel vouchers to unhoused people before bad weather hits, Haynes said.
The criteria for triggering the motel voucher program is less strict than the county’s guidance on when cities should open warming centers.
Here’s what must be met:
- Nighttime lows of 37 degrees or lower for two or more days within a five day span; or
- Rain for two or more consecutive days with the forecast showing a 60% or greater chance of rain; or
- One day or night of rain combined with nighttime lows of 32 degrees or lower.
The county’s use of motel vouchers in inclement weather is new. But officials have used the benefit for years to provide short motel stays for unhoused people “in a moment of crisis,” particularly for those vulnerable due to age, illness or injury, according to a recent county news release. The program is coupled with ongoing supportive services.
“Obviously, we can always do more. We always want to do more,” Haynes said. “And we are doing more now than we've ever done. We're only limited by funding and infrastructure.”
The city also started offering similar vouchers in December. A spokesperson for Mayor Steinberg says they’ve sheltered 250 unhoused people since then.
Donta Williams, a homeless resident, spoke at last week’s vigil. He said he was grateful so many people turned out to remember the unhoused people who died, but added that city officials had failed to keep people safe.
“I think we need to be treated with a whole lot more respect,” Williams said.
Valenzuela said she believes city and county leaders can do more to unite to prevent future tragedies. She said she’s been speaking more frequently with county supervisors since last month and is “hopeful” about making progress.
“We really want to figure this out,” the councilmember said. “And we want to figure out how to do more together.”
Valenzuela added that “the conversations we’ve had in the last two days with the advocates and the listening that we’ve done give me a lot of confidence that we’re not going to let this happen again. … Even if I have to go down there and open the [downtown library warming center] myself.”
With more rain in the forecast, the often-closed warming centers have remained open for unhoused residents to escape the elements.
The city offers warming centers at the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria (9th & I) and the Southside Park Pool House (6th and U). Vehicles can also park safely at the City Hall garage, (10th & I) which will have a portable restroom. Hours for the centers and garage are 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.
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