The Homeless

A homeless man died outside in Sacramento. Why are warming centers still not open?

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Volunteers participate in the point in time count homeless census in Sacramento on Wednesday night, Jan. 30, 2019 near the American River.
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Volunteers participate in the point in time count homeless census in Sacramento on Wednesday night, Jan. 30, 2019 near the American River.

A homeless man was found dead outdoors in downtown Sacramento on Tuesday as temperatures dropped to the low 30s, and activists want to know why officials have not opened warming centers.

Carl Ulmer, 62, was found dead near Ahern Street in downtown Sacramento, Sacramento County Coroner Kimberly Gin said. The cause of death is under investigation by the coroner’s office.

Neither Sacramento County nor the city of Sacramento have opened warming centers this winter because temperatures have not remained at or below freezing for three consecutive nights or hit other thresholds, officials said.

A group that included the county’s public health officer, county and city staff, faith-based organizations and homeless advocacy groups developed the severe weather guidelines which determine when to open warming centers, city spokesman Tim Swanson said.

On Tuesday, temperatures in Sacramento dropped to 35 degrees, followed by 33 degrees Wednesday and 31 degrees Thursday, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Though not freezing, the temperatures were low enough that city and county officials should have opened warming centers, said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness.

“They should do everything they can to prevent unnecessary deaths,” Erlenbusch said. “Weather could play a pretty significant role in homeless deaths with it being that cold.”

At least 110 homeless people died in Sacramento County last year. For most homeless deaths, the official cause is not weather-related, but it often plays a contributing role, Erlenbusch said.

For example, a person who has been drinking is much more likely to be exposed to hypothermia, Erlenbusch said.

Homeless activist Crystal Sanchez agreed the warming centers should have been open this week.

“I think it’s completely inappropriate that it has to take three days of freezing temperatures for them to open warming centers,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez knew Ulmer, who was staying in a tent, because she frequently goes to feed the homeless on Ahern Street, she said.

“You can drive down on any given night and you can see people underneath just a tarp,” Sanchez said. “There’s no protection from the elements there at all.”

Neither the city nor the county opened warming centers last winter. The previous winter, the county opened at least two warming centers and the city opened three.

That winter, the city and county launched a pilot program called “Winter Weather Refuge Centers,” Swanson said. That was before the city opened its triage shelter on Railroad Drive in north Sacramento, Swanson said.

The warming centers cost about $52 in private and public funding per person per night, Swanson said.

The city opened the Railroad Drive shelter last winter, but it is full most nights, like all shelters in the city, officials have said. Mayor Darrell Steinberg has asked all eight City Council members to find space in each of their districts for more shelters, but the shelters will not open this winter.

“The City just this week made an unprecedented $15 million budget commitment to address homelessness, and is working aggressively to expand shelter capacity,” Swanson said in an email.

Other northern California localities, including El Dorado and Tuolumne counties and the city of Chico opened warming centers this week.

In Chico, with snow on the ground, the City Council took an emergency vote Tuesday to order staff to open a warming center. The city had a warming center open Wednesday, and plans to open another one, Chico city manager Mark Orme said. The centers, which have a capacity of 50 people each, will stay open through Monday, Orme said.

The low in Chico was 34 degrees Tuesday, the day the council voted to open the shelter, according to NOAA.

El Dorado County opened the county’s library in Placerville as a warming center Thursday and Friday, county spokeswoman Carla Hass said.

Tuolumne County opened warming centers Tuesday, mostly because many of the county’s residents lost power, said Liz Peterson, the county’s Office of Emergency Services coordinator. Reports of homeless people at a local hospital with hypothermia were also a factor, Peterson said. The centers could stay open through the weekend.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story reported the cause of Ulmer’s death was undetermined. The cause is still under investigation by the Sacramento County Coroner.

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Theresa Clift covers Sacramento City Hall. Before joining The Bee in 2018, she worked as a local government reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Daily Press in Virginia and the Wausau Daily Herald in Wisconsin. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from Central Michigan University.