The temperature was 45 degrees and falling Tuesday night when Alex Lovatos, Timothy Butsch and their pitbull-basenji mix Odie arrived at the pool house at Southside Park, looking for a warm place to sleep.
It was their second night at the newly opened warming center, a pilot program between Sacramento city and county that provides a way for homeless people to escape the cold on nights when no other seasonal shelters are open and temperatures drop below 40 degrees.
The trio has been sleeping under the freeway at Fourth and U streets, Odie snuggled at the bottom of a shared sleeping bag to keep warm. But Butsch, 25, said it was too cold out, and they were grateful for a place to go.
Inside, they pulled out white plastic lounges that, on summer days, surround the pool, and used them as beds, softened with blankets donated from a local Buddhist temple. Sleeping is not technically what the warming center is for, but none of the volunteers – police, medical providers, city staff members and others – seemed to mind as they passed out coffee, hot chocolate and granola bars. Odie got his own kennel and a bowl of food.
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Lovatos and Butsch were among 20 people who came to the warming center on Tuesday, the fourth night the facility was open and its busiest. The first night, Christmas Eve, it drew only two people. Christmas night brought five. On Sunday, nine came.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg visited on Christmas Eve when more volunteers than guests showed up, but is “encouraged by the fact that the numbers are increasing every night,” he said.
Sacramento police Officer Joe Mayden, who helped check pockets and backpacks for weapons as people arrived, said he usually worked the graveyard shift in North Natomas and had been “referring people here left and right.”
“It looks like they are finally grabbing on,” he said. “That’s nice to hear, because it’s cold out there, extremely cold.”
Mayden said the facility has not required police intervention since it opened.
“I have heard not one negative thing,” he said.
After closing Wednesday night while a downtown church provided shelter, the center will reopen Thursday night and remain available at least through Monday morning.
Bikes, backpacks, tents and friends in tow, more people slowly filtered in as the temperature dropped another 5 degrees by 7 p.m.
Lameka Herron, 37, came with Valerie Hagler, 67.
Herron has been in Sacramento only a few weeks after leaving a domestic violence situation in Georgia, she said. She wound up here after falling ill on her Greyhound bus to Seattle and got left behind.
She sat on a metal bench along the wall of the concrete and concrete-block dressing room that served as the women’s side of the shelter, getting a medical evaluation from volunteer Anna Darzins of Elica Health Centers.
“I’ve just been trying to stay free, because I could go back,” Herron said. “It’s just been hard trying to stay free. ... I’ve been sleeping outside a lot.”
Hagler said she was evicted from her apartment two years ago this April and has been on the street since, sleeping in her van. She lives off about $900 a month in Social Security and recently fell ill and spent Christmas in the hospital with a stomach flu.
She set up her lounge chair under a loud heating unit on the ceiling that automatically turned off every two hours unless a volunteer remembered to hit the reset button. She used a blue sleeping bag as a mattress.
“I’m not going to be on the floor and I will have some heat,” she said. “I feel if I could be somewhere … and be able to rest without having to wake up off and on, having to be ice-cold and stuff, maybe I could get well.”
County warming facilities typically open when temperatures fall below freezing for three consecutive nights. But the Southside Park center is a pilot expansion that will open whenever the overnight temperature is expected to fall below 40 degrees and no other seasonal shelter is available.
On Wednesday, Trinity Cathedral was a “pilgrimage” site in the central city that provides walk-up shelter for homeless people on certain nights of the week. The Southside warming center will not be open when a pilgrimage site is available. Steinberg said he plans to do more outreach in coming weeks and create a schedule to help people understand what facilities are available each night.
Steinberg has pushed the project in his first weeks in office as the region experiences a chilly winter. He said the freezing-temperature threshold normally used to open warming centers was arbitrary. He said he would like to keep the facility running through the cold months.
The Southside facility has room for about 40 people, and is open from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
The program comes a year after activists and homeless people staged a months-long “right to rest” 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 rejected the tent city idea, instead preferring a 24-hour shelter that attempts to connect homeless residents with services.
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.
Steinberg said the pilot program is necessary to fill gaps when other options were not available.
“I’m feeling like it was the right thing to do,” he said. “It’s a first step and what we are doing is very basic, but you start with the most basic things and that’s doing everything you can to ensure that people have a warm place to be during the coldest nights.”