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The Nation’s Homeless Suffer Through Another Harsh Winter

Whether it is California or Texas, the homeless struggle to find emergency shelter when the temperature drops, sometimes with tragic results. But state and local governments need to move beyond short-term solutions.

Tents with the words "where will we go" are lit as a memorial to the homeless who died in 2020.
Donated tents form a backdrop for a candlelight vigil to remember members of the homeless community who died during 2020. (TNS)
The final days of January pummeled Sacramento, Calif., with nearly 4 inches of rain, wind gusts over 60 miles an hour and left hundreds of thousands without power, yet the city did not open a single warming center for the nearly 11,000 homeless in Sacramento County.

The height of the storm rolled into the area in the evening of Tuesday, Jan. 26, and continued well into Jan. 28. The storm wreaked havoc on city residents with trees uprooted, sometimes crushing cars and homes, with property strewn about by the strong winds and, for some, power outages that lasted for days. For many this would be enough reason to open warming shelters for the homeless populations, but it was not enough for the city. Typically, Sacramento will not open warming centers unless there are at least two days with temperatures of 32 degrees or lower; on that Tuesday evening it only dropped to 41 degrees in Sacramento.

In the hours prior to the storm’s peak, Mayor Darrell Steinberg appeared in a Jan. 26 City Council meeting, seemingly infuriated by Sacramento County regulations that were preventing the city from acting immediately. “There’s a huge storm out here. People are going to die tonight and it’s just business as usual,” he said in the virtual meeting. “We cannot get a goddamn warming center up in more than one night because the county has rules? I’m sick of this.” Still, no warming centers were opened in the city that evening.

Three days later, the county released a revision of its Severe Weather Guidance that updated its weather-related response guidelines. However, they are not mandates for when a city may or may not open warming centers for people experiencing homelessness. The regulations, Sacramento County Public Information Officer Janna Haynes explains, are just reference points from which cities within the county can make their own detailed action plans.

“The misconception is that those guidelines are specifically for warming centers and they’re not,” says Haynes. “These criteria are a guide to trigger an emergency response on a countywide scale but does not limit cities within the county from opening a warming center under any conditions they see fit and [the county] offers material support when they do.”

On Jan. 27, the day after the storm’s peak, Sacramento City Council members called an emergency meeting to immediately open warming centers for the city’s homeless populations that was used approximately 1,200 times in the following two weeks.

It is uncertain how many unhoused people died in Sacramento from the January storm, but the Sacramento Homeless Union claims at least six died with many more suffering from hypothermia. The Union believes that the city’s mayor, Darrell Steinberg, is responsible for the city’s inaction and plans to hold him accountable.

“We put the city on notice, days in advance, as to the kind of harm that was going to occur,” says California Homeless Union’s legal counsel Anthony Prince. “Everybody saw the weather forecast and it’s inexcusable that Mayor Steinberg failed to take appropriate measures.” The Sacramento Homeless Union called upon the mayor to resign and, when he refused, moved forward with recall proceedings.

According to Prince, the recall movement was in development before the January storm because of several instances in which the Union asserted the mayor and city did not adequately support and protect its homeless population. After the storm, Mayor Steinberg claimed that he had done more for homelessness than any public official in Sacramento history, but Prince criticized the mayor’s assertions.

“He has a track record of making a lot of speeches and shedding crocodile tears and getting angry and pointing the finger elsewhere, but he’s not going to avoid his responsibility and accountability as the chief elected official in the city of Sacramento,” says Prince.

Steinberg, who is also the co-chair of the state’s Homelessness Task Force, has largely ignored the resignation requests and reiterated his intent to fight for the unhoused in the days following the storm. “I will continue my fight to get people indoors through whatever means necessary,” he told local TV station KCRA 3.

National Homeless Numbers on the Rise

It is unclear exactly how many people are experiencing homelessness in the United States on any given night, but advocates agree that the numbers are growing. The National Alliance to End Homelessness and the Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that 17 of every 10,000 people, or 567,715 individuals, experienced homelessness in 2019. As of January 2020, that number had increased by 2 percent and experts all agree that the coronavirus pandemic has only made things worse.

Across the nation, no matter the climate, cities struggle to provide adequate shelter and resources to protect their homeless populations. Despite its mild climate, more homeless people died in Los Angeles County in 2018 due to hypothermia than in San Francisco or New York City.

Studies have shown that life-threatening hypothermia is a risk not only at freezing or sub-freezing temperatures but that it disproportionately impacts those in marginalized groups, like those experiencing homelessness. The University of Michigan explains that a person’s body temperature can drop to hypothermic levels in external temperatures of 50 degrees, or higher when exposed to wet and windy weather, an idea also supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Despite these figures, cities, like Sacramento, will often not open winter warming centers for homeless populations until the temperatures are much colder.


Texas Storm Exposes Homeless Shelter Gap

A February freeze swept across the country from Feb. 10 through Feb. 17, just a few weeks after the winter rainstorm in Sacramento, bringing temperatures of 32 degrees and lower to nearly every state in the nation. Texas was hit particularly hard as its power grid collapsed under the freezing temperatures, leaving hundreds of thousands without power, heat and water. At least six people experiencing homelessness died during the freezing temperatures across the state. Advocates, once again, were angry at officials’ inability to properly protect vulnerable populations before the damage began.

The Texas Tribune reported that Eric Samuels, the president and CEO of the Texas Homeless Network, was experiencing an overwhelming feeling of rage: “Rage that this was allowed to happen when this state was given ample time and warning to do something about our power infrastructure.”

Luckily, Samuels told Governing, there was more that went right than went wrong in February, which he attributes to the local homeless response systems, nonprofits, faith-based agencies and community advocates. “They’re the ones who did the lion’s share of the work and ensured that tens of thousands of Texans experiencing homelessness and those that had to leave their homes because of inhospitable conditions were safe during the winter storm,” he says. But that is a burden that should not fall onto the community.

The collapse of the electric grid in Texas was preventable and predictable. The state could have taken precautions 10 years ago to winterize the infrastructure, say experts, to assure its reliability through severe cold. If the infrastructure remains the same, communities can expect similar disasters in the future. Local organizations do not have the resources necessary to act as more than a stop-gap solution.

“What we’ve seen is the localities have really stepped up to ensure that these services are being provided to those that are experiencing homelessness,” THN’s Statewide Initiatives Manager Nick Thompson said. “But we need the state and the federal government to also step up to be able to reach that goal of housing every person and to be able to end homelessness in the long term.”

But just because the weather is warming and the pipes in Texas are thawed does not mean the homeless problem has disappeared. On any given night, there are an estimated 30,000 people experiencing homelessness across Texas, and over the course of the year that number can fluctuate up to 50,000. Samuels, THN’s president and CEO, reiterated that homelessness is not just an issue that needs attention during extreme weather patterns.

“We need to keep those people in mind even when the weather is good,” he says. “Even when the weather is good, people in that situation or people at risk are suffering from their own personal disasters every day.”

Some advocates think that the national response to homelessness will only change when the numbers are too horrific to overlook. Donald Whitehead, the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, explains that the nation has become desensitized to seeing people living on the streets but there is always one thing that people cannot disregard: death.

“I think when people see the level, the degree that people are losing their lives and how lifespans are shortened because of homelessness, I think it will be impossible to ignore,” he says.

There is no data on how many people die each year due to homelessness, but advocates are working to change that. Last December, the NCH partnered with the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council to build a dashboard that will collect and display the mortality rates of those experiencing homelessness. But the dashboard is new and collecting mortality information is difficult.

Everything regarding state and local homelessness response seems hard: putting up warming shelters in a timely manner, accessing mortality data specific to homeless populations, even just establishing proper response protocols. But advocates all agree that the problem is not actually difficult to solve.

The Sacramento Homeless Union and other advocates do not just want the warming centers to be opened on time or someone to take responsibility for the inaction; they want cities to help the homeless find permanent shelter. “[Mayor Steinberg] talks about monies that he’s been able to obtain,” explains Prince, the Union’s legal counsel. “None of that has manifested in actual brick and mortar housing for anybody.”

Even when housing is being built, says NCH’s Whitehead, it is only being built for residents who are at a higher economic level. Cities across the nation need to invest their local dollars into some of the many affordable housing options available to cities.

“There are tiny homes, there are people that have made homes from the large storage crates; there are multiple, many, very successful housing options that are available in the community,” he says. “Cities just need to have the political will to actually make those things happen.”

Prioritization is key to solving the homeless crisis, say experts. Currently, Whitehead says, there is not a single city in America in which a person could afford a two-bedroom unit while working a minimum-wage job. In Congress, the House passed a bill to more than double the federal minimum wage to $15 as a part of the American Rescue Plan Act, but the Senate voted it down.

It is not an unsolvable issue, says Texas Homeless Network’s Thompson. “Ultimately, we have to remind ourselves that homelessness and poverty are policy choices.”

Zoe is the digital editor for Governing.
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