In response to the deaths in Sacramento we are also urging that the decisions to open warming centers be made by elected officials and not unelected bureaucrats.
The state capital for the most populous state in the union, Sacramento, is struggling to serve low income people during the pandemic. Last week, they made the tragic decision to not open a warming center as a storm approached. On the evening of January 26 a thunderstorm hit the region with 70 mph winds and flooding that resulted in the death of at least five people living outside.
The National Coalition for the Homeless is renewing our call to open warming centers based on need and not some arbitrary number like the expected temperature outside. In response to the specific tragedy in Sacramento, we are urging that elected officials from around the country be forced to make the decision on when to open a warming center so that they have to face voters when their lack of action has deadly consequences. In Sacramento, NCH is asking that for the rest of the winter that the warming centers or a motel room be opened to anyone who requests a place inside in memory of those who lost their lives during this past storm. Karen Hunter was sleeping alone in a tent as the horrible wind struck Sacramento and lost her life because her government could not provide a safe place for her to ride out the storm.
As the storm approached on Tuesday January 26, three City Council members as well as the Mayor urged the County to open a warming center to get people inside, but City Manager, Howard Chan decided that the temperature was not going to below the 32 degree threshold mandated by the County according to an investigation by the Sacramento Bee’s Teresa Clift. The City of Sacramento has some byzantine rules about only opening the warming centers if the temperature gets to 32 degrees despite the heavy rain expected, and the fact that many people die of hypothermia because they are wet and cold. Chan justified his action to the Sacramento Bee saying that his fear was the warming center would become a Covid hotspot and spread the disease throughout the community. Other cities such as Cleveland have opened hotel rooms instead of gymnasiums to those who sleep outside to keep them safe from the elements as well as the coronavirus.
The public radio station quoted Mayor Darell Steinber as demanding the County open a safe place ahead of the storm. Here is how Kris Hooks of CapRadio described the lack of urgency from the County when describing the Mayor,
“Darrell Steinberg expressed outrage over the slow-moving bureaucracy to move people out of the elements. ‘We can’t get a Goddamn warming center open for more than one night because the county has rules? I’m sick of it,’ Steinberg said.”
The Sacramento Bee also included the same quote in their investigation, “Night of Terror: Sacramento homeless lined up for shelter during the storm. The doors never opened.”
“It is real simple,” said Donald Whitehead Executive Director of National Coalition for the Homeless, “City governments must respond when a taxpayer asks for a warm place inside or if they cannot keep their citizens safe they have no reason to exist. The threat of hypothermia is typically a result of an individual not being able to keep themselves dry and their temperature drops. We urge cities to respond when any individual asks for help by providing a safe, warm place for the everyone to sleep if they do not have night time shelter. So for example, if a couple, lets call them Mary and Joseph, shows up at City Hall and asks for a place to stay out of the elements, cities have a moral obligation to open up their doors and not force Mary to sleep in a barn exposed to the elements especially during inclement weather.”
The Sacramento Bee article quoted Mark Jordan who was living next to the tent Karen Hunter died in saying, “I just thought my heart was going to stop. I was so cold.” Since unelected bureaucrats do not seem to have moral compass to understand the needs of the population they serve, NCH is asking that the life and death decisions of when to open “warming centers” be made by someone in the community who will have to face the public in an election if they make the wrong decision. We believe that Karen Hunter paid with her life because an unelected bureaucrat made a decision that the thousands of people in Sacramento living outside could survive a thunderstorm with only a thin layer of nylon for protection.
The Sacramento Services Not Sweeps Coalition is hosting a vigil for those who lost their lives in the city last week on Friday, February 5 at 5 p.m., at Sacramento City Hall, and march to the County building to demand a more humane response to the housing crisis in the region. We urge activists in the region to show up (fully masked) and maintain 6 feet of social distancing to support the Services Not Sweeps Coalition demands for action. For more information on local efforts to protect the most vulnerable in Sacramento, visit the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness website.
Here are some additional articles about the situation in Sacramento:
- City Council Article: https://www.sacbee.com/article248802475.html
- CBS Local TV story: https://sacramento.cbslocal.com/2021/01/27/two-homeless-death-steinberg/
- Photos of damage: https://sacramento.cbslocal.com/2021/01/27/two-homeless-death-steinberg/
- Not Opening the Warming Centers: https://sacbee.com/news/local/article248818310.html
- Public Radio Story on the Deaths: https://www.capradio.org/articles/2021/01/27/unhoused-residents-died-as-a-storm-ravaged-sacramento-and-officials-debated-homelessness-solutions/
- National Story on the Storm Damage: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/sacramento-homeless-rain-storm-shelter_n_601340efc5b6bde2f5bde2cd?ncid=NEWSSTAND0005