Christmas Eve will be a little bit cozier for homeless Sacramentans seeking shelter from cold temperatures in coming days.
The city and county are partnering to open a warming center on Dec. 24 at the clubhouse in Southside Park at 2107 Sixth St. It’s part of a pilot program pushed by new Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg to expand emergency homeless shelters throughout the winter.
Currently, warming centers are open only when temperatures are forecast below freezing for three consecutive nights. Steinberg said he thought the temperature barrier was arbitrary and wanted to ensure that at least one facility was open every night that falls below 40 degrees.
“It may be a matter of degrees, but it’s still freezing cold,” Steinberg said. “I hope that this first step provides some hope and some real relief.”
Low temperatures between Saturday night and Tuesday night are expected to range between 32 and 36 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.
The Southside Park facility will have space for about 40 people and stay open from 6 p.m to 6:30 a.m. It will remain through at least Tuesday, according to Steinberg spokeswoman Kelly Rivas.
The site also served as a warming center in 2014. The clubhouse is adjacent to a swimming pool closed for the winter and just north of the popular Sunday downtown farmers market.
It is not considered a shelter and will not have sleeping accommodations, but the site will have pet kennels available. Snacks, blankets and medical care from a team of volunteers will also be available. Navigators from the Sacramento Steps Forward program will be on hand to help connect attendees with services.
The program comes a year after activists and homeless people maintained a months-long protest outside Sacramento City Hall against anti-camping laws. City leaders formed a committee to discuss solutions and toured tent cities in Seattle to see whether a similar encampment would work in Sacramento.
The City Council ultimately rejected the tent city idea, instead preferring a 24-hour shelter that attempts to connect homeless residents with services.
Currently, the city and county rely in part on the Winter Sanctuary program that transports homeless people to churches that have agreed to accommodate them overnight. The program began Thanksgiving week and runs through March 31. Unlike the pilot program, it does not allow pets.
There are also “pilgrimage” sites in the central city that provide walk-up shelter for homeless people on certain nights of the week.
Only two more pilgrimage nights are scheduled this month on Thursday and next Wednesday. Steinberg said he wanted to fill the “gap” in shelter options with the pilot program.
“The faith community is doing the very best it can to provide these warming centers for as many nights as they can, but their resources … they are limited,” said Steinberg. “It is essential that the city and the county step forward and provide this lifesaving service.”
Steve Cantelme, chief of Sacramento County emergency services, said that historically warming centers have drawn few attendees, often less than a half-dozen people each night.
While Cantelme said no data are available to explain the low demand for shelters, he suspects that some homeless people are hesitant to go to unfamiliar locations. He also suggested that some may not want to abide by rules prohibiting pets or drug and alcohol use.
“I know working with the homeless, a lot of them just don’t like to go to places they don’t know,” he said. “Unless they are driven out by the weather being too cold or too wet, a lot of them want to stay where they are.”
Cantelme said the pilot program with the city could be useful to measure the demand for such programs in the future. Under the 40-degree threshold, the centers could operate about 70 nights each winter, he said.
James Lee Clark, a homeless advocate who helped lead the City Hall protest, cautioned that while warming centers are “great for keeping people alive on these freezing nights,” they often lack outreach to inform homeless people about them.
“Just because the city opened them up, people don’t know about that,” said Clark. “Everything (homeless people) get is by word of mouth. They don’t have TV. They don’t read the paper very often because they can’t afford it.”
The pilot program is funded through funds already allocated to homeless services and volunteer efforts, Steinberg said. About $100,000 from a city program providing hotel vouchers to homeless people will be used if necessary, Rivas said.
However, City Manager Howard Chan said he expected costs from the program to be minimal because the county will contribute food and blankets, while staff will be volunteers. Chan said one of the few costs could be overtime pay for police officers to provide security, but the department is working to divert officers from other assignments to reduce that cost.