Sonoma County homelessness advocates call for beefed up winter response as freezing temperatures hit

As Santa Rosa opens a warming center Tuesday night, frigid temperatures have once again highlighted the gap between the county’s sizeable homeless population and available shelter capacity.|

Where to find local warming centers and shelters

Santa Rosa

Santa Rosa has partnered with Catholic Charities to open a temporary warming center at Catholic Charities’ new Caritas Center, 301 6th St. Suite 108.

The center will operate daily from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. through Dec. 1 and the space is accessible from Morgan and Sixth streets.

The space can host up to 78 people and, if needed, there is space for an additional 90 people in an outdoor courtyard that will be warmed by heaters.

People can stop at the center to warm up and charge their phones but no cots will be provided for sleeping. People seeking emergency shelter will be provided with a referral to other facilities.

Winter beds are available at the city’s Samuel Jones Hall, 4020 Finley Ave.

During the day, people seeking shelter can visit three Santa Rosa parks and recreation facilities with heated lobbies.

— Finley Recreation Complex, 2060 W. College Ave., 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday.

— Steele Lane Community Center, 415 Steele Ln., 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday to Friday.

— Person Senior Wing, 2060 W. College Ave., 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday.

Reach for Home

Beds are available at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 209 W. Matheson St. in Healdsburg, when temperatures drop below 38 degrees or there are two or more consecutive days of rain. Space is available for adults and families and the shelter is open 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. Call 707-433-6161 for more information.

Redwood Gospel Mission

Space is available at Redwood Gospel Mission through the Entertaining Angels Nomadic Shelter Program at 101 Sixth St. in Santa Rosa. This is a sober shelter for adults and families and operates 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. Call 707-542-4817 for information.

WCCS Guerneville Winter Shelter

West County Community Services has expanded its shelter capacity at the Guerneville Veteran’s Building, 16255 First St. The organization is also providing hats and gloves.

COTS’ Mary Isaak Center

Winter beds are available at COTS' Mary Isaak Center, 900 Hopper St. in Petaluma.

For more information on available resources, visit Sonoma County’s Emergency Readiness, Response and Recovery website.

SOURCES: Santa Rosa and Sonoma County

Santa Rosa was poised to open a warming center Tuesday night with freezing temperatures, rain and heavy wind forecast throughout the North Bay this week, but advocates say it shouldn’t take extreme weather to provide winter relief to people experiencing homelessness.

The drop-in center at Catholic Charities’ new downtown Caritas Center was set to open at 7 p.m. and remain available until Saturday — two days longer than initially planned under an extension announced Wednesday.

The move came as the National Weather Service said a bout of frigid and rainy days could pose significant health risks to vulnerable people and unsheltered individuals. There are approximately 1,650 people experiencing homelessness in Santa Rosa, just over half of the total homeless population in Sonoma County.

It is the first time a warming center has been activated this winter season and the first time under a new policy approved in March aimed at speeding Santa Rosa’s response to extreme weather, guiding how and when warming centers are opened.

The step came after the city and homeless service providers scrambled to provide temporary reprieve to nearly 200 people experiencing homelessness as temperatures dipped below 30 degrees last New Year’s Eve and again in February.

While homelessness advocates have said the policy is a good start, they’ve argued the trigger — three consecutive days with overnight lows below 32 degrees or three nights of rain with “major or extreme risk levels” — is too high a bar.

The Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights said in a statement in mid-November that local governments shouldn’t “wait until deadly temperatures are reached before providing lifesaving assistance.”

Kelli Kuykendall, Santa Rosa’s homelessness manager, said while city officials understand the concern, there aren’t enough resources to operate a warming center daily.

“I understand advocates always want us to do more or to do better and we share their concerns of people being outside in the cold,” Kuykendall said. “With limited resources, we had to pick some type of baseline that is within the resources we have and within the context of everything else the city is doing in response to homelessness.”

Inside the city’s decision

Officials with the Santa Rosa Fire Department have been monitoring the weather daily since cooler weather arrived but conditions hadn’t yet triggered opening a warming center despite a cold front in early November that brought rain and a frost advisory.

This week, the Weather Service is predicting lows ranging from the upper 20s to lower 40s on Wednesday with a high probability of frost and up to 50% chance of a freeze. In Santa Rosa, the temperature could drop to 29 degrees.

Wednesday’s cold snap is followed by expected rain and strong winds Thursday.

Kuykendall said the fire department made the call to open the center following the weather forecast and it was approved by City Manager Maraskeshia Smith.

City officials and Catholic Charities have been working to ramp up staffing and pull together a list of supplies and other resources needed to open the center on Tuesday and reaching out to people experiencing homelessness to notify them of the opening.

The Commission on Human Rights, in its Nov. 18 statement, said temperatures hovered at or below freezing for three consecutive days earlier in the month but the city did not open the center.

The decision put people at risk and the protocols should be revised, the commission said.

The commission also called on Santa Rosa, other municipalities in the county and Sonoma County to immediately open space at government buildings to provide a warm space or shelter to those in need for the entire winter season.

“It is well established that in times of other emergencies, municipal buildings have been designated in a matter of hours to house and care for large numbers of people such as wildfire victims complete with food, water, and adequate facilities for the newly homeless,” according to the commission statement. “There should be no discrimination ever, especially in an emergency.”

Kuykendall said concerns are raised every winter about a need for more shelter space and warming centers.

While the city has received feedback from homelessness advocates that the policy should be more flexible or the bar should be lowered, the city isn’t considering any changes at this time, she said.

She noted the policy is for extreme weather events, not just a typical cold or rainy day.

Greater regional need

The frigid temperatures have once again highlighted the gap between the county’s sizable homeless population and available shelter capacity.

Kuykendall said it shouldn’t just be on Santa Rosa to address the issue.

“This is a regional issue and we need a regional response,” she said.

Santa Rosa appears to be the only municipality in the county with a warming center policy and other jurisdictions largely rely on nonprofits and service providers to provide unsheltered individuals with a warm place to go.

Sonoma County used to work with social service agencies to operate warming centers on cold nights but more recently shifted to working with local nonprofits and faith groups to help expand shelter space in the winter.

Working with established groups to help support community members has been a successful model, county spokesperson Carly Cabrera said.

Shelter capacity has been expanded at several shelters across the county, including West County Community Services’ shelter at the Guerneville Veteran’s Building and at COTS Mary Isaak Center in Petaluma, with increased capacity of approximately 50 beds, according to the county. The beds are first-come, first-served.

But there is unmet need.

During a recent committee meeting of the Continuum of Care, a coalition of local governments and providers that oversees the regional homelessness response, several committee members said the lack of winter shelter was alarming.

Margaret Sluyk, CEO of Reach for Home, a service provider in northern Sonoma County, said the group was “extremely concerned” about the lack of winter shelter. Providers lacked the necessary funding or staffing to open warming centers, she said.

The Continuum of Care should incorporate a funding mechanism into the strategic plan to help providers expand shelter space or open warming centers, she said, adding that without such a mechanism it would be hard to keep up with demand.

The Sonoma County Department of Emergency Management is working to develop a response plan that covers extreme winter events. The plan would outline when health warnings are triggered and what a coordinated response would look like, similar to an extreme heat policy the county developed last summer. Sebastopol has included a similar policy in its draft emergency operations plan.

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

Where to find local warming centers and shelters

Santa Rosa

Santa Rosa has partnered with Catholic Charities to open a temporary warming center at Catholic Charities’ new Caritas Center, 301 6th St. Suite 108.

The center will operate daily from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. through Dec. 1 and the space is accessible from Morgan and Sixth streets.

The space can host up to 78 people and, if needed, there is space for an additional 90 people in an outdoor courtyard that will be warmed by heaters.

People can stop at the center to warm up and charge their phones but no cots will be provided for sleeping. People seeking emergency shelter will be provided with a referral to other facilities.

Winter beds are available at the city’s Samuel Jones Hall, 4020 Finley Ave.

During the day, people seeking shelter can visit three Santa Rosa parks and recreation facilities with heated lobbies.

— Finley Recreation Complex, 2060 W. College Ave., 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday.

— Steele Lane Community Center, 415 Steele Ln., 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday to Friday.

— Person Senior Wing, 2060 W. College Ave., 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday.

Reach for Home

Beds are available at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 209 W. Matheson St. in Healdsburg, when temperatures drop below 38 degrees or there are two or more consecutive days of rain. Space is available for adults and families and the shelter is open 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. Call 707-433-6161 for more information.

Redwood Gospel Mission

Space is available at Redwood Gospel Mission through the Entertaining Angels Nomadic Shelter Program at 101 Sixth St. in Santa Rosa. This is a sober shelter for adults and families and operates 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. Call 707-542-4817 for information.

WCCS Guerneville Winter Shelter

West County Community Services has expanded its shelter capacity at the Guerneville Veteran’s Building, 16255 First St. The organization is also providing hats and gloves.

COTS’ Mary Isaak Center

Winter beds are available at COTS' Mary Isaak Center, 900 Hopper St. in Petaluma.

For more information on available resources, visit Sonoma County’s Emergency Readiness, Response and Recovery website.

SOURCES: Santa Rosa and Sonoma County

Paulina Pineda

Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park city reporter

Decisions made by local elected officials have some of the biggest day-to-day impacts on residents, from funding investments in roads and water infrastructure to setting policies to address housing needs and homelessness. As a city reporter, I want to track those decisions and how they affect the community while also highlighting areas that are being neglected or can be improved.

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