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A Night at The Warming Centers

Six people died from exposure in Sacramento on the night of the big storm at the end of January 26-27, 2021. The city refused to open the warming centers that were funded specifically to prevent such a tragedy, and even though the forecast for the storm was severe.

Dozens more of the unhoused have died in Sacramento since then. The two warming centers were briefly opened but then closed again for at least 10 days because of a case of covid. A new warming center has since been opened in South Sac, at the Seventh Day Adventist Church on Lemon Hill, but only the main one across the street from Cesar Chavez Plaza has finally reopened downtown.

I grabbed my backpack and some blankets and went to see what it was like to camp out in such a place firsthand.

Wandering around downtown carrying blankets seems to make people think you look extremely homeless, by the way. Passing by Cesar Chavez one immediately notices that there are still plenty of unhoused people camping out on the sidewalks and not in a shelter. I walked up to the Galleria Warming Center and someone let me in the gate. There was staff at a table inside, who asked if I had the bracelet. I did not. The staff said it was full of 35 people and immediately became concerned about who specifically had let me in, more worried about that than where I could sleep. I asked where else I could go for the night. "Right out back out the gate," she said. And after that? “I don’t know. We can’t take any more people in tonight...Is somebody opening the gate?”

Another member of staff, an older gentleman, was much more sympathetic. He said the City Hall parking garage was closed, which was supposed to be for the overflow of campers who couldn't get into the warming center. The best he could suggest was camping on the sidewalk in front of the gate to the warming center, where some people were already sleeping. Or I could show up early the next day to guarantee a spot, but then someone else would have to sleep on the sidewalk in front of the gate. Survival of the fittest.

I checked out the parking garage anyways, but some security guards called me out and it did not seem like a nice or warm place to sleep. Only better than the sidewalk if it happened to be raining, which it wasn't.

So I went to the warming center that just opened up in South Sac, which was not within walking distance and I only heard about it because some of the organizers told me about it. It was clearly not common knowledge among the unhoused community that it exists, nor is it accessible for the people camping out around downtown Sacramento.

They let me in after 11 pm, which was nice because the guy at the front who took my name and temperature said I'd have to get there at 5:30 pm in the future if I wanted to stay there. There were some clean bathrooms, and the cots were socially distanced, with masks required at all times, but the setup was a bit paranoia-inducing since the cots were in the middle of the room where they are watched by staff all night long, and other staff or security guards continually walk by on patrol.

I opted for a spot on the ground against a wall, but I was informed I would need to sleep on a cot in the middle of the room if I wanted to stay there. We compromised and I laid down on the floor next to a cot. There was a brightly lit kitchen area people were working in that was noisy, and the staff had loud conversations until well after 1 am as if they didn't know people were trying to sleep there, which I thought was the whole point. They had about a dozen cots set up that were half occupied, and more cots in a stack in the corner. There was supposed to be capacity for 35, but not enough space for more cots in that room to stay socially distanced, so maybe they had another room to utilize if more people showed up for the night. More staff was milling about throughout the night and in the morning than there were unhoused people taking shelter; a stark contrast to the downtown warming center that was actively turning people away. Right after 6 am all the lights came on and I was woken up to move along. A friendly lad gave me some coffee.

It definitely seemed like liability was more of a concern at both places than the unhoused people they were sheltering, which is unfortunate but does make some sense because if there was violence, drug use, or covid it could get the whole place shut down and has before, and then the people that need shelter wouldn't be any better off.

The mayor and city council are keen on congratulating themselves on what a great job they have done for the unhoused, and how many millions of dollars they have allocated for shelters and warming centers, and they voted unanimously after people died in the storm to open the warming centers. But with 35 people in the main one and half a dozen in the can find at least that many people camped out around City Hall.

The odds are the people who died of exposure would have been turned away even if the warming centers were open and they managed to make it there during the storm, with such low capacity. And they would have to leave by 7 am even if it was still freezing outside, presumably finding somewhere to wait nearby if they were gonna try to get back into the warming center the next night. The South Sac site is unrealistic for unhoused people in the downtown area to reach. There really needs to be more capacity within the vicinity of where most of the unhoused people live and find services.

The city owns the buildings for the first two warming centers, one of which has stayed closed, and wasn’t being used during covid anyways, and the newest one is in a church that is theoretically providing space for charity. The warming centers would have stayed closed if there weren't unpaid volunteers who showed up to partially staff them, as well as donations of supplies according to the president of the Sacramento Homeless Union, Crystal Sanchez. So why does it cost about a million dollars for a month or two just to provide space for about 40 people, with an unhoused community in Sacramento of 11,000?

“The shelter situation they have right now is a Band-Aid on a bleed-out situation,” Sanchez told us. Officials and contractors are “poverty pimping” on the plight of the unhoused without making a real difference.

Crystal Sanchez president of the Sacramento Homeless Union

At the city council meetings, they talk about how much they have accomplished for the unhoused and congratulate each other on how good of a job they have done meanwhile at least 600 unhoused people have died on the mayor’s watch, mostly from exposure, plus the people that die in hospitals are not counted, only the ones found on the streets or in their tents. The mayor puts on an angry bluster whenever helping the unhoused comes up, but why didn’t they act sooner? How have they managed to accomplish so little with so much money? It’s always someone else’s fault or no one’s fault.

City officials will tell you they are doing everything they can for the unhoused community, but the fact is they waited for a bunch of people to die before opening the warming centers. They said there was some sort of rule that the temperature had to be below freezing for three consecutive days. But then it turns out that rule didn’t really matter anyway. The temperature has been above freezing when they finally reopened the main warming center this week, but the capacity is so low it hardly makes a difference. The people that need it the most are not gonna be able to fight for first come first served every night, at a place that feels like a jail for refugees anyways.

"Don’t worry about the money, that isn't the issue here. The issue is the council direction and policy on overnight centers,” Mayor Steinberg said at the last council meeting. But all of the council members support helping the unhoused, so what’s the problem? The mayor is up for Attorney General of California and Eric Guerra is up for California Senate, and they will both tell you how great of a job they have done for the unhoused in Sacramento. But they have clearly not tried to stay the night there themselves, or they might realize how woefully inadequate their measures have been so far. They know how to talk a big game in Zoom meetings but how long should Sacramento wait for some actual results? How many more people have to die for officials to cut through the bureaucratic bullshit?

Tune into and comment at the next city council meeting March 9, 2021 @ 2pm PST:

Check out and watch the past city council meetings and decisions:



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