Freezing temperatures highlight need for warming centers, shelter beds for Sonoma County’s homeless residents
The gap between Sonoma County’s sizable homeless population and its shelter capacity is often most dire in periods of inclement winter weather, like this week’s run of frigid nights.
With overnight temperatures in the upper-20s expected through Friday morning — after weeks of unseasonably warm, dry weather — homeless advocates, organizations and government officials have scrambled to ensure unsheltered individuals have a warm place to go.
The moves come amid a cold weather warning issued Tuesday and set to last through Friday.
“Officials recommend that residents limit time outdoors, as serious medical conditions including hypothermia and frostbite can develop with prolonged cold weather exposure,” county officials said in a news release.
Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, the region’s dominant homeless services provider, along with other groups, was retooling some operations to respond to the freezing weather and demand for overnight beds.
About 2,700 individuals on any given night are known to be without permanent shelter, according to Jennielynn Holmes, chief program officer at Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa.
The county has around 900 year-round shelter beds and utilizes programs including Project Homekey, the state-funded, limited motel-stay program, but many people remain without a roof over their heads on a day-to-day basis.
“Our first goal is make sure as many people as possible are shelters,” Holmes said.
Those efforts can include activating extra beds in some shelters, but part of the challenge is that “not everyone experiencing homelessness wants to be in a shelter,” Holmes said.
Warming centers are intended to help bridge the gap.
In conjunction with the city of Santa Rosa, Catholic Charities set up a nighttime outdoor warming center at the St. Vincent de Paul Society’s community kitchen, 610 Wilson St. in Santa Rosa. The center is open from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m, but is not set up for sleeping. It does not have beds but is equipped with heaters.
Homeless advocate Kathleen Finigan, a member of the group Homeless Action and the county’s Commission on Human Rights, worries that the efforts fall far short.
“We don’t seem to have an emergency freeze protocol,” Finigan said.
During a cold weather warning, the county releases information via social media, its website and press releases outlining available resources, including shelter space and warming centers.
It is up to community organizations and local government teams to then get that information out to people in need of help.
“They are going to be closest to people who are unhoused,” said Dave Kiff, interim director of the county’s Community Development Commission, the chief housing and homelessness agency.
County officials put out word Tuesday of available space at shelters and warming centers, while also advising residents to bundle up with layered clothing and minimize time outside.
But Finigan said the county and city governments need to do more to step up and coordinate response as too many people are left unhoused and exposed to frigid temperatures.
Describing the response as “grass-rootsy” Finigan said organizations like Acts of Kindness and Homeless Action are running some centers, but she observed that a centralized, organized response seems to be lacking.
“It doesn’t seem to be clear, as to whether there is a protocol or not,” Finigan said. “Who is supposed to be in charge of this?”
Holmes, a veteran homeless services representative, said the response has involved close coordination with City Hall in Santa Rosa.
“We were able to respond to this in 24 hours and we wouldn’t have been able to respond without the city,” Holmes said.
You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MurphReports.
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