What it’s like for homeless people in extreme weather in Sacramento

One stormy night in January, Joyce Williams and Sharon Jones woke up an unhoused woman at a campground near the Sacramento River.

They feared the floods would swallow them, their belongings and their dogs before they could escape.

“It was dark and the water was flowing fast and heavy, and there was a lot of debris,” Williams said.

The Williams and Jones couple endured seven difficult years of life on the street, regularly experiencing heart attacks, heat strokes and exposure to parasite-infested water – all while the threat of city raids loomed. Their condition has been exacerbated by extreme weather conditions, from rainstorms to heat waves.

“We’re doing the best we can,” Williams said. “We just go week by week.”

Warnings of rising temperatures — and political pressures — have intensified across California, prompting cities like Sacramento to look for solutions to address homelessness and climate change.

Sacramento broke records for severe weather, facing heat and flooding last fall and winter. A statewide survey published by the University of California, San Francisco in June indicated that nearly 1 percent of about 3,200 respondents had lost housing due to “climate emergencies.”

“Homelessness, climate change and health care are clearly intertwined with each other,” said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Alliance to End Homelessness. “People would live longer if they didn’t live abroad.”

At the state level, Gov. Gavin Newsom launched an expanded budget to fund climate resiliency centers that target extreme heat waves, such as the Outreach and Engagement Center in Sacramento.

But funding gaps remain. Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, a Sacramento Democrat, suggested that the gap between the state budget and the average cost of housing per unhoused person is too wide.

“Permanent supportive housing … is about $600,000 per door and we have 171,000 homeless people in California,” McCarty said. “171,000 homeless people multiplied by $600,000 equals $100 billion.”

While lawmakers consider the fiscal reality, volunteers on the ground are sweating it out – literally.

“Knock, knock! Sacramento Street Medicine!” said one of them. It was a 103-degree morning in early July. Sweating, Sacramento Street Medicine volunteers peered out onto a bridge near the Sacramento River where a camp had been set up — the volunteers referred to it as Camp Gold.

They descended below street level into the partial cover of tree branches and shrubs pulling carts filled with supply packages containing items such as ACE bandages, hand sanitizer, socks, water, hydration packs and oranges.

“These people are survivors,” said Sam Sears, volunteer leader. “I go out there for an afternoon in 100-degree weather and I feel like I’m going to die.”

Their main goal was to maintain relations after city sweeps and erratic weather broke up camps around the American River Parkway.

“I just wish they would stop the scans because it’s really hard to keep care going,” Sears said. “Although the heat wasn’t bad (this summer), it was difficult to locate and reach people.”

A homeless person living in Camp Gould said they were swept eight times in two weeks. But not all camps have to worry about city sweeps anymore.

In April, Williams and Jones secured a lease with other non-homestead residents to set up the city’s first self-governing camp — known as Camp Resolution — on an empty plot of public land in the heart of California’s capital, equipped with a few generators to power… Most trailers.

Much of William and Jones’ weather gear is self-funded — including $800 for an all-purpose weather tent and an additional $800 for a generator they’ve had for the past five years.

“For people with respiratory disease, diabetes or chronic heart disease, there’s a lot of stress on their bodies because of (extreme weather),” said Joe Smith, a local nonprofit director and advocate. “There is a lot of pressure on their minds because of the mental state they are going through.”

Smith is the program director of the Sacramento Center for Outreach and Engagement, which opened in 2022 to provide relief to unhoused people in the city’s 2nd District, while also providing primary care and mental health services. Nearly half of those who entered the pet-friendly center then found a more stable place, either living sober or long-term, according to Smith.

“It’s a feeling of stability for people,” Smith said.

The Sacramento City Council voted unanimously on Aug. 1 to change the activation criteria, now allowing the center to open its doors during any National Weather System extreme weather event and when the air quality index reaches unhealthy levels.

Before voting, temperatures must be above 100°F for two days, and not fall below 75°F at night.

Smith and other advocates have been calling for more flexible factors to allow the center to open its doors more frequently.

With the hottest months of the year waning, Smith reported that the center has been open 1,946 nights since it first opened in September of last year. Two hundred and sixty of these openings were associated with heat, and 1,684 were associated with winter.

“I’m glad they adjusted the activation for heat,” Smith said. “It has provided the opportunity for more days for the center to be open for a weather respite, and in an ideal world, we would have a 24/7 respite regardless of weather parameters.”

The center operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for public convenience, and accommodates up to 50 homeless people. The center must meet weather activation criteria to accommodate an additional 50 non-residents.

Last September’s heat wave broke records in downtown Sacramento, where temperatures soared to 116 degrees. In September this year, the hottest temperature was 20 degrees lower.

“As someone who lives outside, even one day can be dangerous,” said Smith, who was homeless between 2005 and 2011.

In May, a Sacramento grand jury called the city’s previous homelessness solutions ineffective.

Assemblyman McCarty, along with three other legislators, proposed creating a joint powers authority to “sort out” future homeless solutions. This authority will consist of officials from the City and County of Greater Sacramento to pool and accelerate initiatives and funding to address homelessness.

“We’re all in this together,” McCarty said. “Community, government – ​​we can’t solve the problem with just one person,” he said, adding that the joint response includes assembly centres, tiny houses, secure parking lots, and more.

Right now, advocates are offering Camp Resolution as a model.

Camp Resolution’s rental agreement allows the group of approximately 50 people without housing to live on the plot without fear of being swept away until everyone is housed.

“The Camp decision represents a truly remarkable shift, and potentially the future of how California can address the housing crisis,” Sears said.

©2023 Sacramento Bee. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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