Santa Rosa officials hope new policy leads to quicker aid for homeless residents during freezing temperatures

Warming centers will be activated earlier during extreme cold and wet weather. The new policy comes after officials were caught flat-footed during freezing temperatures in December in February.|

Santa Rosa officials and homeless services providers were caught flat-footed when temperatures dropped below freezing this winter, but a new city policy could improve how quickly the city can set up warming centers during extreme weather to keep unhoused people out of the cold.

The policy, which the City Manager’s Office approved in March, outlines when the city must activate a warming center and sets procedures for how to open the spaces.

The decision came after Santa Rosa and its homeless services provider, Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, scrambled to set up propane heaters in pop-up tents to provide temporary reprieve to nearly 200 people experiencing homelessness as temperatures dipped below 30 around New Year’s Eve and again in late February.

“This was all new for us,” said Kelli Kuykendall, Santa Rosa’s housing and community services manager.

Kuykendall said the county used to work with social service agencies to operate warming centers on cold nights but more recently shifted to funding additional shelter space in the winter.

That effort was sidelined as health protocols aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 forced the city to reduce the number of beds at its shelter, she said.

The new policy will allow officials to more efficiently serve the city’s homeless population, she said.

In addition to the policy, the City Council on Tuesday approved amending the city’s contract with Catholic Charities to expand the scope of the group’s work to include operating warming centers during extreme cold or wet weather.

Santa Rosa allocated an additional $45,000 to Catholic Charities to cover costs of operating the warming centers this past winter, along with a contingency in case there’s a need to activate a warming center a third time this fiscal year, which ends in June. Housing staff has requested that the city allocate $100,000 to Catholic Charities next fiscal year to operate warming centers, Kuykendall said.

Kathleen Finigan, a member of advocacy group Homeless Action, said this was a good start to ensure people who are unhoused aren’t exposed to frigid temperatures.

Below-freezing temperatures and the duration of the cold front prompted Santa Rosa officials and Catholic Charities to discuss activating a warming center in December. It had been years since a warming center was activated, said Jennielynn Holmes, chief program officer at Catholic Charities.

Catholic Charities Homeless Services and Housing Manager Jennielynn Holmes talks with Felipe Bahena while the Homeless Services Center on Morgan Street prepares warming centers for homeless in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Dec. 5, 2013. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)
Catholic Charities Homeless Services and Housing Manager Jennielynn Holmes talks with Felipe Bahena while the Homeless Services Center on Morgan Street prepares warming centers for homeless in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Dec. 5, 2013. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

COVID-19 restrictions and staffing levels made it difficult to get the center off the ground quickly, Holmes said.

“I was piling up grocery carts full of food, and we got everything set up within 12 hours, but it was hard,” she said.

Under the policy, the city manager will call for the establishment of a warming center when the National Weather Service forecasts:

  • Three consecutive days with overnight lows below 32 degrees.
  • Three consecutive nights of rain with “major or extreme risk levels.”

The manager will work with city staffers to identify an indoor or outdoor location to establish the center or work with the city’s homeless services operator to set up a space, according to the policy.

The centers will typically be open between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. People will be able to stop in at the center to warm up, but it will not be set up for sleeping.

People can bring one small bag and daypack, and snacks and beverages will be provided. Catholic Charities provided warm food, coffee and hot chocolate at the warming centers this past winter, Holmes said.

Pets and service animals may be allowed at the discretion of the operator, and staff will help connect people with Sonoma County Animal Services, too, according to the policy.

The city will release information about warming centers via social media, its website and through news releases and work with community organizations to reach people.

Holmes said the new policy will help the city and providers get ahead of weather events and rally to help more quickly.

“Weather is only so predictable, but at least now we’ll have the structure that will allow us to set it up more frequently and hopefully more efficiently,” Holmes said.

Finigan, of Homeless Action, said she was disappointed during the winter freeze that there didn’t appear to be protocols for opening a warming center. Volunteer and mutual aid groups had to pick up the ball, setting up tents and heaters to keep people warm, so she was pleased to see a policy in place now.

However, Finigan said the city should lower the bar for opening a warming center.

“One subfreezing night is more than enough,” she said, and suggested that council members spend a night outside to feel how cold it is.

“Go out with a crummy sleeping bag and a couple of thin sheets and see how good it feels at 35,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Paulina Pineda at 707-521-5268 or On Twitter @paulinapineda22.

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