Sacramento’s homeless men and women brace for frigid nights

Social service agencies are gathering blankets, collecting coats and scrambling to find warm havens for hundreds of homeless people in the Sacramento area who face the prospect of sleeping outdoors in frigid temperatures this week.

“We’re putting out an urgent call for sleeping bags, tarps, blankets and coats,” said Joan Burke of Loaves & Fishes, which provides daytime meals and other services to the homeless from its complex on North C Street. “There are going to be people sleeping outside in this weather, and we want to make sure everyone has some kind of protection.”

Clear skies and light winds today will produce the coldest temperatures of the season so far in the region, according to the National Weather Service, with this morning’s low predicted to plunge to 27 degrees in Sacramento. Another cold weather system is expected to head toward the region Friday and continue into Saturday.

Hundreds of people could literally be left out in the cold.

A snapshot census of homelessness, conducted on a January night this year, found 2,538 people living in Sacramento County without permanent housing. That was about an 8percent increase from the last census, conducted in 2011.

People without permanent housing have few options for escaping this week’s frigid temperatures. Most area homeless shelters are full, managers said.

“Our waiting list is at 200 people at this point,” said Michele Steeb, chief executive officer of St. John’s Shelter Program for Women and Children. “It’s way too long, and we’re definitely concerned about people who will be out in this weather.”

The city and county opened an overnight “warming center” Wednesday at Southside Park’s Pool Building, offering a safe place to stay for up to 70 people. Officials said the center likely will remain open for at least a few more days.

The city of Elk Grove and Cosumnes Community Services District opened a warming center Wednesday at the Barbara Morse Wackford Community & Aquatic Complex that will be open for at least two nights.

But people who typically sleep outdoors are unlikely to take advantage of the services, said John Kraintz, a homeless advocate who lived outside for years.

“People who normally live along the river or on the streets don’t like to congregate in those settings,” said Kraintz. “They have big issues with freedom and things like that.”

Some have pets they are unwilling to leave behind.

“Most of those folks are just loading up with blankets, Kraintz said. “Bundling up and trying to get a bit warmer under a bridge rather than being out into the open air.”

Some likely will take advantage of the county’s “nomadic” winter shelter program, which allows homeless men and women to spend chilly nights inside a rotating group of houses of worship across the Sacramento area. The program, which picks up patrons at Loaves & Fishes and transports them to churches and other religious gathering spots for hot meals and warm sleeping quarters, can accommodate 100 to 120 people each night, said Michele Watts, acting deputy director of Sacramento Steps Forward.

Few other beds are available.

“Unfortunately, the emergency shelter system is overloaded,” said Watts. Some agencies, like the Salvation Army, are allowing people to stay in their facilities overnight even if they have no empty beds, she said.

For those left out in the cold, Loaves is collecting new and “gently used” coats, sleeping bags, tarps, hats and gloves, said Burke. Donations may be dropped off between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. at the complex’s warehouse at 1351 N. C St.

Even before the agency began soliciting the items, Burke said, Loaves began receiving “spontaneous” donations.

“One of the joys of working at Loaves is seeing how the community responds during times like this,” she said. “People understand. People get it. When you’re looking at an extended period of temperatures that are below freezing, it really poses a risk.”

Loaves clients have been lining up early this week for hot coffee, said Burke.

“That coffee is their heater when they arrive,” she said. “It physically warms them up, and they are very appreciative of that.”

But Loaves shuts down before dark, and after that many clients retreat to their outdoor sleeping places.

“I’m scared for them,” said Kraintz. “I’m really worried that some of them won’t make it.”

Warming center information

Sacramento: Southside Park pool building, 2115 Sixth St. Capacity for 60-75 people. Open tonight from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., with more days possible depending on weather.

Elk Grove: Barbara Morse Wackford Community & Aquatic Complex, 9014 Bruceville Rd. Open tonight from 7 p.m. to 8 a.m., with more days possible depending on weather.