Rain brings ugliness of homelessness out into open

Roland Richie, 62, hangs wet clothing and bedding along a fence on the American River Parkway in December. The recent rain and flooding has been hard on homeless people.
Roland Richie, 62, hangs wet clothing and bedding along a fence on the American River Parkway in December. The recent rain and flooding has been hard on homeless people. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Hours after it began raining last week, a homeless woman staggered into the Maryhouse day shelter, her body shivering uncontrollably. She had just made a desperate swim across the swollen American River, caseworkers said. All they could do was wrap her in blankets and hand her two cups of blazing hot coffee until she was warm enough to make it upstairs into the shower.

Two days later, the rain still falling, another homeless woman stumbled into Maryhouse. She had on no shoes or socks, but was using a walker. All around her were women used to camping along the American River Parkway, but who had been forced out by flooding.

“So many times, I’ve come out (to the lobby) and asked, ‘What do you need?’ ” said Shannon Stevens, director of Maryhouse. “And they say ‘nothing.’ They just need a place to dry out.”

If there ever was a reminder of why Sacramento must find a way to provide more short-term shelter for the hundreds of men, women and children who sleep outside every night, this spate of storms has been it. Too often, the conversation about homelessness begins and ends with ways to increase the stock of permanent housing. And indeed, that’s a long-term solution.

But when Mayor Darrell Steinberg, the City Council and Sacramento County Board of Supervisors meet Jan. 31 to discuss this issue, their challenge must be to do more now, not just later – and do it in a big way. The lives of people who are sick, elderly and disabled are at stake.

Already this month, Sacramento has been inundated with more than 7 inches of rain. Storms that started Wednesday could boost that total to twice the normal average.

In response, the Board of Supervisors has declared a state of emergency to deal with the storm damage. The city and the county expanded the use of a warming center at Southside Park to accept a few dozen homeless people not just when it’s cold, but also when it’s raining.

The Rio Linda Food Closet, alarmed by the humanitarian crisis on its doorstep, opened its own warming center last week. And this week, the county and city hammered out a $100,000 deal with the Sacramento Association of Realtors to open a winter shelter with space for 25 people at the Stanford Settlement Center on West El Camino Avenue. The shelter was almost at capacity on Wednesday night, hours after doors opened there for the first time.

But the human toll is still overwhelming. On Wednesday evening, as heavy rain and high winds swept through downtown, a 65-year-old homeless man died while sleeping alongside others in the shadow of on Sacramento City Hall, according to city spokeswoman Linda Tucker. The cause of death is not yet known.

Near Loaves & Fishes, people have taken to hanging their belongings on fences to dry. In Del Paso Heights, the scene under some bridges could probably be declared a public health disaster.

It’s what led Councilman Allen Warren to ask his colleagues for a temporary moratorium on the city’s anti-camping ordinance to make way for a possible outdoor tent city in his North Sacramento district.

“Permanent housing is the solution, and I believe our mayor is committed to that,” Warren said at last week’s council meeting. “But we’re not going to do it overnight, and we need to have bridges to help us get there.”

That bridge may or may not be a tent city, but it has to be something.