I’ve talked about this last year. Very sad. They deserve better.
Sacramento must stop abandoning homeless people outdoors in storms and winter weather
Justace Keylo said he was asleep when branches fell on his tent at homeless encampment near Basler Street in Sacramento on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. City and county officials did not open warming centers Tuesday night to shelter the homeless. BY RENÉE C. BYER
A massive winter storm barreled through Sacramento on Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning, toppling trees, knocking out power and soaking the city in rain. But despite days of warning from weather forecasters about the “atmospheric river” storm headed our way, Sacramento city officials failed to open up indoor shelters for the homeless.
As a result, our city’s poorest and most vulnerable people were left to fend for themselves in the cold, harsh elements. The high winds and falling tree limbs ripped through tents, injuring multiple people and leaving them to struggle unprotected in the streets.
“Wednesday’s storm destroyed encampments across the city,” wrote The Sacramento Bee’s Theresa Clift. “Several tents along the riverfront were crushed by downed trees and branches, injuring people. Cold rain streamed through the flimsy roofs of tents, tarps and campers. Dogs, afraid of the storm, ran loose in the streets. At least one homeless person died, the coroner’s office said.”TOP ARTICLES
Such an outcome was predictable, but a bureaucratic approach to providing winter shelter to the city’s large homeless population left thousands of people out in the cold. City and county rules dictate that the temperature must drop below 33 degrees for three nights in a row before warming centers can be opened. This rule has resulted in more than one unhoused person dying in our streets in the freezing cold over the years.
In December, Mayor Steinberg said the city would open the warming centers any time the temperature dropped below 33 degrees. This was a step in the right direction, but it didn’t help the people stuck outside in last night’s storm Shannon Dominguez-Stevens, director of Sacramento’s non-profit Maryhouse facility for homeless women, said it was “absolutely a disgrace” that city officials failed to open the shelters.
“It’s shameful that in 2021, a city the size of Sacramento can’t pull together and figure out a way to get people sheltered for a night that we anticipated was going to be disastrous,” Dominguez-Stevens told Clift.
Dominguez-Stevens said one woman arrived at Loaves & Fishes homeless center shivering, clad only in a bra and underwear after her tent blew away in the night.
“There’s a huge storm out here. People are gonna die tonight,” said Mayor Darrell Steinberg during a City Council meeting on Tuesday night. “We can’t get a goddamn warming center open for more than one night because the county has rules? I’m sick of it.”
Sacramento emergency management officials have warned that sheltering the homeless indoors could expose them to COVID-19. Yet leaving vulnerable populations to fend for themselves in freezing temperatures and howling storms also risks lives. Two more homeless people died on Sacramento streets this week, though it’s not clear if the severe weather played a direct role in their deaths.
“Just confirmed that one unhoused person died last night in my district,” wrote District 4 councilmember Katie Valenzuela on Twitter. “I’m beyond grief-stricken… I’m angry. We can and MUST do better for our neighbors.”
The Sacramento City Council held an emergency meeting on Wednesday to address the situation in the face of a storm that was expected to last most of the week. The City Council declared an “extreme weather emergency” and, according to a press release from Steinberg’s office, the city plans to open several warming centers as soon as possible. The city opened one such center, at the Tsakopoulous Library Galleria, on Wednesday night.
It’s a step in the right direction, but it should have happened sooner. Responding after disaster strikes is not enough. The Sacramento area’s rigid rules for opening shelters have repeatedly failed to protect our most vulnerable citizens, leaving them to suffer and die in inhumane conditions. COVID certainly complicates the situation, but that’s no excuse for our leaders to throw up their hands and do nothing.
Mayor Steinberg has previously called for an end to the three-day rule, and Councilmembers Katie Valenzuela and Mai Vang both called for the city to open shelters as the storm approached. City and county leaders must move with urgency to open up emergency shelters for homeless people struggling in these winter conditions. They must also discard any senseless rules that prevent them from acting quickly in the future.