City officials in Sacramento, California, came under fire this week after they didn’t open an emergency warming shelter during a massive rainstorm and two unhoused people died.
On Tuesday night, after the National Weather Service warned of “strong and damaging winds,” city officials did not open warming shelters, as the standard for opening those was cold weather reaching below 33 degrees.
Overnight on Tuesday, as blasting winds and torrential rains tore through the region, homeless residents’ tents were battered, soaked and destroyed. At least two unhoused people were found dead the next day.
On Wednesday, following outrage from homeless advocacy groups, the City Council held an emergency meeting. Mayor Darrell Steinberg declared a local emergency, enabling the city to open a warming center starting Wednesday, amid ongoing adverse weather, and keep it open through the winter.
“It’s not enough — yet,” City Council member Katie Valenzuela told HuffPost, noting that the city is also working to secure vouchers to open up more hotel rooms for homeless residents for the months to come, hopefully using newly available federal funding to cover the costs.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, cities across the state have been using hotel rooms to house unsheltered homeless people, as living in congregate settings like shelters can put people at risk for COVID-19.
“I’m still completely grief-stricken that this didn’t happen before Tuesday,” Valenzuela added. One of the unhoused people who died was in her district. “That wasn’t the first storm, or the first death on our streets.”
A record high of 138 homeless people died on the streets of Sacramento in 2019, per The Sacramento Bee. An estimated 5,500 people were homeless on any given night in Sacramento County — over two-thirds of them living unsheltered, per a count in January 2019. There are not enough available shelter beds in the area to serve all of them.
“This is one of the worst storms I’ve ever seen in my life, really,” Roosevelt Brannon, 59, who has been living on the streets of Sacramento for a decade, told ABC News. He lost his tent in the storm Tuesday night. “I have a tarp still, but a lot of my shoes are wet, a lot of my clothes are wet ... family papers and stuff, miscellaneous items, are probably in another county by now.”
Rain is forecasted to continue throughout the region through Thursday night.
California has long faced an affordable housing crisis, and the number of people who are unhoused across the state has risen dramatically in recent years.
Meanwhile, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, homeless people are particularly at risk, as research has shown that homeless populations report higher rates of health conditions, including respiratory issues like asthma or chronic bronchitis, which could make them more susceptible to complications from the virus. And those living in congregate settings like encampments or shelters could be more at risk of the virus’ spread, with difficulty social distancing.
“It was already bad for people living on the streets,” Daniel Homer, managing attorney at Homeless Action Center in West Oakland, told HuffPost last year, speaking of the virus. “This is going to make it much worse.”