As temperatures plummet, homeless guests enter newly opened winter ‘triage’ shelter

They trudged in from riverbanks and hidden outdoor spaces, carrying dirty backpacks and leading dogs on leashes.

The first 50 of some 200 homeless men and women who will make a converted warehouse in North Sacramento their home during the next few months seemed a bit disoriented, but grateful to escape the biting night air and their sodden sleeping bags and dome tents.

“I’m hoping for help to get back on my feet,” said Christine Ziegler, 53, who said she has been living outdoors for the better part of 15 years. She has rejected shelters before, she said, in part because none would accept her animals. She was here, she said, only because Sacramento’s newly opened winter facility agreed to accommodate her kitten and five dogs.

The shelter, which opened Friday afternoon after a whirlwind few weeks of planning, also allows couples to bunk next to each other and is offering a wide array of “wrap-around” services designed to put homeless people on a path to permanent housing, Mayor Darrell Steinberg and others said.

“This represents the best opportunity we’ve ever really had to dramatically change the lives of people, beyond just taking them off of the streets during the cold weather,” said Steinberg, as guests began settling into beds with metal frames and thin mattresses. “It’s up to us to prove that this approach is going to be successful.”

A small army of city employees, including City Council members and the police chief, roamed the premises Friday. Staffers from the Front Street Animal Shelter took care of more than two dozen pets of homeless guests, vaccinating and microchipping the animals before placing them in kennels.

“For homeless people, their animals are their warmth, their shelter, their security,” said animal care technician Chelsea Cushing. “There is a huge bond.”

The winter facility on Railroad Drive, which will operate through March, has spurred controversy in North Sacramento, an area that residents and business owners have argued already is overburdened with crime and poverty.

In a series of meetings with city leaders, residents have circulated petitions against the project and accused proponents of forcing it into the area without adequate neighborhood input.

“I personally want the shelter to be successful,” said Larry Glover-Meade, president of the Woodlake Neighborhood Association. But residents are frustrated by a lack of details about certain issues, including additional security and promised funds to pay for impacts of the shelter on businesses, he said. Many also feel ambushed by the fact that they found out about the project from an article last month in The Sacramento Bee, he added.

“The timeline has been so compressed,” Glover-Meade said. “The shelter is opening now, and it’s like trying to design a boat as you’re floating on the water.”

The city is committing $175,000 to increased police patrols around the shelter, which will operate 24 hours and will be run by Volunteers of America, and have set aside hundreds of thousands of dollars to offset potential impacts on nearby businesses. Officials said the shelter will enforce bans against drug and alcohol abuse and violence.

Emily Halcon, the city’s homeless services coordinator, said she hopes the facility will benefit the area . One of the goals of the “winter triage” shelter will be to connect homeless men and women who now live in encampments and other places in the surrounding area with people, places and services that will put them on a path to permanent housing, Halcon said. The shelter will offer help in obtaining drug and alcohol treatment, mental health care and other needs, she said.

Steinberg has said the winter shelter, along with a more permanent facility planned for next year, is part of a broad response to a crisis of homelessness in Sacramento. The mayor has made the issue a centerpiece of his administration.

According to a recent census, homelessness rose 30 percent in Sacramento County between 2015 and 2017. It was the highest number of people living without permanent housing Sacramento ever has recorded. About 2,000 of those counted by the survey were living outside.

The city and county recently agreed to commit $108 million over the next three years to help thousands of chronically homeless people off of the streets using federal and city money from a pilot program known as Whole Person Care, along with county funding for increased mental health and addiction services. The combined effort is geared toward keeping people out of emergency rooms, bring stability to their lives and move them toward permanent housing.

Joseph Carr said he plans to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible during his stay at the winter facility. He and his fiancée, Joanna Vasquez, have grown tired of trying to stay warm in a tent on the river levee, he said. “We have to worry every day about officers moving us around. It becomes a nightmare. I don’t want to be out there anymore, freezing our butts off. I’m in this for the long haul.”

Cynthia Hubert: 916-321-1082, @Cynthia_Hubert

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