Thousands of homeless Sacramentans experienced the recent series of powerful winter storms outdoors, staying at their own encampments instead of at emergency shelters even as conditions turned deadly.
CapRadio interviewed seven unhoused residents and three shelter providers over the past week. Most of the unhoused people said it’s too difficult to access the region’s scattered shelters. Others said they fear losing their possessions if they leave their familiar camps.
Yet for others, it’s an issue of trust.
“The reality is there is an overwhelming distrust of shelter providers from people who are experiencing chronic homelessness, because there just has not been consistent service provision for them,” said Shannon Dominguez-Stevens, who runs a daytime shelter for homeless women and children at Loaves & Fishes north of downtown.
People experiencing homelessness say they lack confidence in Sacramento’s shelter system because of past harm, including promises of shelter, housing or other services that were never fulfilled.
“Everybody out here has pretty much been lied to. I don’t think there’s much trust,” said Holly Porter, who lives at Camp Resolution, a large homeless encampment in North Sacramento. “In a lot of ways, it’s just easier to stand your ground. It’s the stability. They don’t want to lose what they have.”
Many are reluctant to even explore shelter options and are staying outdoors despite the risks. Two unhoused people were killed during this past weekend’s storms after trees fell on their tents, according to the Sacramento County coroner’s office.
But even in these worst of conditions, unhoused residents say they have no choice but to stay put, because the region has a severe lack of shelter capacity and strict rules when beds are available.
‘It’s all they have. I totally get it.’
To change this culture of distrust, Dominguez-Stevens says the region must create not only more shelter, but also spaces that prioritize compassion, empathy and the daily needs of unhoused residents.
“What happens a lot in shelter spaces and even respite spaces, is that the story always starts with the punitive,” Dominguez-Stevens said. “It starts with ‘Here’s all the things you can’t do,’ rather than saying ‘Welcome, outside is really horrible right now. We’re glad you’re here and we’re going to do what we can to keep you warm and safe tonight.’”
Sacramento’s shelter system should also reduce barriers to entry, she said, by allowing guests to bring pets, partners and possessions — something the city has done when opening its most recent facilities.
Sacramento’s Outreach and Engagement Center, an emergency shelter typically for up to 50 unhoused residents, has doubled its capacity during recent storms.
Unlike at some shelters, sobriety is not a requirement to enter the facility, located at 3615 Auburn Boulevard in northeast Sacramento.
Guests, however, cannot use illegal drugs or alcohol on site, said Erin Johansen, chief executive officer of Hope Cooperative, during a tour last fall. Her nonprofit operates the center through a contract with the city.
Joe Smith, the center’s director, said he understands why many unhoused people are reluctant to seek out shelter, even ahead of destructive storms. He spent five-and-a-half years unhoused.
“They don’t want to lose their spot [at their camp] and their stuff because it’s all they have. I totally get it,” he said.
Many of the guests who have stayed at the Outreach and Engagement Center were “completely washed out” by the torrential rains, Smith said. “So, there is no more stuff to hang on to.”
But there are ways to build trust, he says.
“I think what’s needed is for staff to thoughtfully care for them” when they do access shelter, Smith explained, “and to connect them with the things they need.”
Some of those connections are made at the shelter’s computer center, where staff can help guests access documents for medical and other benefits, and to apply for an apartment or longer-term shelter.
The facility, which opened full-time last fall, also has a dining room, restrooms, showers, separate dormitory areas for men and women and storage areas for guests’ belongings, including a kennel for their pets.
‘They don’t get input from us and they’re making decisions on our lives’
But even with the features at the city’s newer shelters, some homeless Sacramentans like Kristine Price say they won’t leave their camps.
Price lives in a small encampment near a North Sacramento light rail station. She says she’s burned candles inside her camper and “done whatever I could” to stay warm. But she suffers from PTSD and doesn’t feel comfortable around groups of people. Also, there are her two chihuahuas.
“I don’t mind the shelters so much, it’s just that I have the dogs,” Price said in between rainy days last week. “I’m not going to take my dogs and put them through the trauma of being in a cage [at a shelter] while I’m walking around. They don’t understand that. They’re just like children.”
Price says Hope Cooperative’s outreach workers have visited her camp and offered to drive residents to the shelter, though most decided to stay put.
The Auburn Boulevard center does not include mental health or substance-use treatment onsite, but staff can refer guests to outside programs.
Unhoused residents said there’s one more way shelter providers can gain their confidence — by listening to them.
“They need to talk to the homeless people more and find out what they need,” said Sharon Jones, who lives in a tent at Camp Resolution. “They don’t get input from us and they’re making decisions on our lives. I didn’t ask to be out here but I’m making it out here.”
Instead of focusing solely on shelters, Porter at Camp Resolution says agencies could donate supplies like hot food, wood, jackets, blankets and metal clamps to secure tarps and tents ahead of destructive storms.
“For the majority of people, it’s better having help with [securing] tarps and staying secure right where they are,” she said.
Sharon Jones (left) and Joyce Williams live at an encampment called Camp Resolution in North Sacramento. The married couple say residents are working together to get through the storms and have also received donations of food, wood and trailers.Chris Nichols / CapRadio
While the Outreach and Engagement Center provides temporary shelter year-round, it is also one of the few locations in Sacramento that consistently provides emergency shelter during bad weather.
For years, homeless advocates have urged the city and county to open more year-round warming and cooling centers. Those calls have grown louder as the number of homeless deaths have climbed.
A record 199 unhoused residents died in Sacramento County in 2021, up significantly from the previous year, according to a report published last fall.
Eight deaths were from hypothermia, “more than all the cases of hypothermia from the previous 19 years combined,” it found.
Smith of the Outreach and Engagement Center said the region has done a better job providing transportation to and from emergency shelters over the past year. Currently, the city and county are partnering with Sacramento RT to offer free shuttle service to temporary shelters during the storms.
He said his center is running at or near capacity, even with the reluctance of many to seek out shelter.
“We need probably 100 more of these just over this region,” Smith added.
Here are the emergency shelters open for unhoused residents during the winter storms, as of Jan. 12, according to Sacramento County:
- Outreach and Engagement Center at 3615 Auburn Blvd in northeast Sacramento. Walk-ups and pets are accepted.
- Cal Expo, 1600 Exposition Blvd, Building 8. This shelter has crates for pets.
- The North Fifth Street Shelter lobby, 700 North Fifth St. in the River District. It is open from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. Walk-ups are accepted. The shelter is for adults only and is unable to accommodate pets.
- Sacramento County increased capacity at its North A Shelter, 1400 N. A St., also in the River District, by an additional 55 beds, which have been filled. It will welcome new guests as beds are vacated, according to the county. It can accommodate pets.
The county also activated its motel voucher weather respite program ahead of the original storm on New Year’s Eve and is currently sheltering more than 350 people in motels.
- The city of Sacramento emergency services website has information about a range of homeless services, including crisis mental health centers, seasonal respite centers and homeless shelters for adults, families, youth, pregnant people and survivors of domestic violence.
- The city of Sacramento also has a frequently asked questions website addressing concerns about homeless encampments.
- Sacramento County maintains a ‘What You Can Do’ website on how to volunteer at homeless shelters and for reporting concerns about encampments. It also has a Homeless Initiatives website detailing its efforts to address the ongoing crisis.
Contact CapRadio reporter Chris Nichols at [email protected]
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