'I was freezing until I got here'
A heavy coat, a hat with ear flaps and wool gloves were no match for the winter chill as Henry Eden tried to sleep last week in a parking lot along North A Street.
“I was so freezing cold, I just lost it,” Eden, 49, recalled. “I thought I was going to die.”
On Monday, in front of a building not far from the spot where he had spent several nights, he was among the first in line for Winter Sanctuary, a program in which homeless men and women can spend their nights in rotating houses of worship across Sacramento County. With his Fender guitar strapped to his back, Eden began tearing up as he expressed his gratitude. He suffers from mental illness, he said, but on this afternoon he felt blessed.
It was the first day of the sanctuary program, and it would be a full house for Capital Christian Center, where Eden and the others would get a hot meal, perhaps watch a movie, and find a warm place to sleep. Winter Sanctuary aims to accommodate 100 men and women each night until April 2. At least that many people had lined up for sanctuary Monday afternoon, nearly two hours before RT buses were scheduled to pick up participants and deliver them to the church.
For Sacramento County’s growing homeless population, more shelter spots will be available this winter than in past years. In addition to the sanctuary program, operated for Sacramento County by the nonprofit First Step Communities, 200 spaces soon will be available at a second winter shelter funded by the city. That shelter is expected to open in early December on Railroad Drive in North Sacramento, with priority given to homeless people who live in that part of town.
Still, many people will be left out in the cold. A recent “point in time” census found that at least 2,000 people live outdoors in Sacramento County on any given night.
“We have a much bigger void to fill, but this is a huge step in the right direction,” said Stephen Watters, executive director of First Step Communities, as his staffers and volunteers on Monday logged information about sanctuary participants into a computer, stored their bicycles and other belongings and passed out sleeping bags.
Both the county and city winter shelter programs plan to offer homeless people “wraparound services” such as mental health and addiction counseling and help with connections to medical care and housing.
“We’re hopeful that a good number of people will enroll in these services,” paving the way for them to gain stability and permanent housing, said Emily Halcon, the city’s homeless services coordinator. Next year, if the winter program goes well, the city plans to open a permanent shelter in another space in North Sacramento.
The Railroad Drive winter shelter, which will offer kennels for pets, should be ready to accept guests around the clock during the first week in December, Halcon said. “We already are actively doing outreach in the area,” encouraging homeless campers to sign onto the program, she said.
Winter Sanctuary offers shelter overnight, and participants are bused back to one of three “intake centers” in the morning.
On Monday, a vacant office building on North A Street owned by the county became the primary intake center for Winter Sanctuary participants. First Step passed out a list of strict rules, including bans on drugs, alcohol, violence and threats. One man turned over a large knife that First Step staffers said they would store while its owner was enrolled in the sanctuary program.
About 30 churches and other houses of worship are hosting homeless guests this winter, and organizers are looking for more, Watters said. Men and women are to be segregated when the lights go out each night, and security will be provided at each location for the duration of the program.
To get ready for Winter Sanctuary, some participating congregation members watched a special training video produced by Sacramento Steps Forward, a nonprofit agency that works with service providers and policymakers on homelessness in the region.
The training helped church leaders, members and other volunteers to better understand and communicate with homeless people who in many cases may struggle with mental problems and addictions, said Ben Avey of Sacramento Steps Forward.
“A lot of people in our community really want to do the right thing and help people, but they don’t necessarily know how,” Avey said. “There is a fear that comes with unfamiliarity.” The training video teaches lessons in “trust, honesty, relationships and healthy boundaries,” as well as suggestions for defusing potentially volatile situations.
Homeless men and women who violate the rules are subject to being dropped from the program, “but our goal is to help the most vulnerable people who live on our streets, and not be too quick to put them back out there,” Watters said. “We want to work with them to make this a success.”
Desarae Stout and Dario Zapata are teenagers, but they already have had a taste of homeless life. Kicked out of the houses of relatives, they said, they recently spent a week in an abandoned trailer in Orangevale. The experience, they said, was scary and humbling.
“We had blankets, but they got wet, and we kept hearing noises at night,” Zapata said as the two stood in line for Winter Sanctuary, a light drizzle dampening their jackets. “We came here because we were told we could get food and showers. It will be safer. It’s got to be better than living in that other environment.”