Updated at 10:01 a.m., March 3
The City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to transfer the remaining $323,000 of a $1 million emergency homelessness response fund to the city’s motel voucher program.
City Manager Howard Chan and Mayor Darrell Steinberg clarified that the transfer does not take money away from operations at the city’s existing warming centers, which are funded and scheduled to remain open through March 31.
At next Tuesday’s meeting, Steinberg said the council plans to discuss whether to keep the emergency shelters open year-round or revert back to a form of weather-based criteria for opening the facilities. The centers rarely opened under the weather-based thresholds.
Chan told council members “money is not the issue” with keeping the centers open. “It is a question of policy. I’m seeking some clarity.”
Advocates for Sacramento’s homeless community and city leaders criticized a staff proposal that appeared to take away funds from emergency warming centers and funnel them to the city’s motel voucher program.
But city officials say the money previously approved for the warming centers was intended for broader use and that shelters will still operate through the end of March.
The staff proposal recommends the City Council at its meeting on Tuesday transfer $323,000 “allocated for the Overnight Warming Center funding” to a motel voucher program, which is also used to shelter homeless residents.
Sacramento has used the barebones facilities, which are largely staffed by volunteers, off and on in recent weeks to keep unhoused people out of the cold. Calls to reopen them intensified after several unhoused people died during a powerful January storm that downed power lines and ripped through tent encampments. Before that, the centers had only opened twice in several years.
A COVID-19 outbreak at the downtown library forced the city to close its two centers last month — the other located in the Southside Park pool house — though the library warming center reopened on Monday.
City spokesperson Jennifer Singer said the money the staff report cites comes from the $1 million the council allotted to its homelessness response after it declared an emergency following the late January storm. She said the money “is not just for warming centers,” but for a larger array of services for people who are unhoused.
She acknowledged the wording in the staff report makes it seem like the funds are dedicated to the emergency shelters.
Singer said she did not think the recent COVID-19 outbreak at the library warming center had anything to do with the proposal.
But the phrasing in the city staff report led to confusion among residents, advocates for the unhoused, and a couple of city officials.
Mary Lynne Vellinga, the spokesperson for Mayor Darrell Steinberg, told CapRadio that “the staff report is worded poorly. We intend to fully fund the warming centers. The mayor supports both the warming centers and motels.”
Steinberg noted on Twitter that this shouldn’t be an “either/or” debate.
Councilmember Katie Valenzuela argued that removing funds from the warming centers “seems shortsighted,” and that the city should instead commit money from the general funds to the facilities.
“I just think this is not the moment for us to hit cruise control but is a time to commit additional resources to scale up the [warming center] program to meet the need,” Valenzuela said.
George Raya, a community activist and Midtown resident, agreed that the council should find the voucher money elsewhere.
“You don’t rob Peter to pay Paul,” he said. “And if you’re really serious about people dying — about people dying in the streets — mayor, don’t take away that money from the warming centers.”
Joe Smith, advocacy director at Loaves and Fishes, said city leaders have made progress in sheltering unhoused people since the January storm but also expressed concern about limit warming center funds.
“This is no time to take the foot off the gas. All solutions need to be in play,” he said.
The city reopened the downtown Library Galleria warming center at 828 I St. on Monday evening. It was closed for 10 days after a number of volunteers tested positive for COVID-19.
The city will not, however, reopen the warming center at the Southside Park Pool House, after city officials determined it was too small.
The City Hall Parking Garage at 1000 I St. remains open nightly from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. to support people in vehicles and those on foot.
A new warming center and safe parking site recently opened in south Sacramento at Sacramento Capitol City Seventh-Day Adventist Church, 6701 Lemon Hill Ave. That center is open nightly from 5:30 p.m. to 7 a.m.
The city’s motel voucher program uses five motels with 353 rooms to shelter people experiencing homelessness.
The Council will discuss plans at Tuesday’s meeting to increase funding for the motel voucher program.
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