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