Local group works on providing the homeless with warm spaces on the coldest nights
When the cold snap hit in early December, resulting in the deaths of four homeless people in Santa Clara County, a group of concerned locals decided to take action to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring in Santa Cruz County.
“We thought it would be nice to have a set of known places where the homeless could go in extreme weather,” says Janie Yett, a lecturer at UC Santa Cruz.
With this in mind, longtime homeless advocate Brent Adams and a group of about 25 other Santa Cruz citizens, including Yett, organized the Residents for Coldest Nights Warming Centers, also known as The Warming Group. The group’s goal is to establish a series of “warming centers,” or spaces that become available to the unsheltered on nights when precipitation and extreme cold are predicted to occur.
“Every year I personally go through emotional pain [because] I know hundreds and hundreds of people are out there in the woods just shivering,” says Adams.
Unlike a conventional homeless shelter, a warming center would operate only on nights when the temperatures fall below around 40 degrees, as they did in the first half of December, when the coldest nights dropped below 30 degrees. The group is basing their model for these centers on existing warming centers in cities such as Eugene, Ore.
Compared to a homeless shelter, a warming center is a more bare-bones space, often operated at a church or large hall. While the location may provide cots or floor space for the homeless, they are primarily a source of heat and a refuge from the elements.
According to the 2013 Homeless Census and Survey conducted by Applied Survey Research in January 2013, the homeless population in Santa Cruz County is on the rise. The report’s point-in-time homeless count increased from 2,771 individuals in 2011 to 3,536 in 2013. The actual number of people who are homeless at some point during the year is estimated to be much higher.
The Homeless Services Center in Santa Cruz provides more than 200 beds to homeless individuals year-round, and opens up the National Guard Armory from Nov. 15 to April 15 to provide an additional 100 beds in the winter. There are additional shelters in Watsonville, such as the Pajaro Valley Shelter and those provided by the Salvation Army, but that still leaves thousands—more than 80 percent—of the county’s homeless at the mercy of the elements on any given winter night.
The 2013 census states that if the total population of unsheltered homeless people were to line up for a bed, the line would extend for one mile.
The hazards of being exposed to low temperatures are numerous, and can become deadly when an individual lacks sufficient clothing and blankets, or if their health is already debilitated by chronic health problems, respiratory infections, or drugs and alcohol.
“We’re obviously not in a part of the country where we see a lot of frostbite,” says Matt Nathanson, a nurse with the Homeless Persons Health Project. “What we do tend to see is the exacerbating of existing illnesses, like somebody who is already a diabetic or somebody who already has respiratory problems and are then worn out by being exposed to the elements at night.”
Although only one homeless death in the county was attributed to exposure in the past year, according to the Santa Cruz County 2013 Report on Homeless Deaths, 43 percent of homeless deaths occurred either outside or in a parked vehicle.
“Often what I see is that deaths are multi-factorial,” says Nathanson. “If somebody dies outside, the death might be attributed to a chronic illness they have, but of course the question is, ‘did the lowering of their body temperature also contribute to the slowing of their heart rate and the slowing of their respiration?’”
Nathanson recalls the story of a local homeless man in 2011 who sought refuge from the cold in a dumpster, and was subsequently crushed and killed.
Since The Warming Group began in mid-December, they have had four meetings, with the first few dedicated to organization, developing community outreach, scouting potential warming centers, and thinking about what it would be like to be freezing and homeless.
“At one meeting, we started off by everyone sharing a memory of when they were the coldest in their lives,” says Yett. “That brought about a change in the tone of the meeting because it really brought it home. Almost everyone has had an uncomfortably cold or stormy experience.”
The Warming Group’s current challenges lie in locating spaces throughout the county to house the homeless on frigid winter nights. It recently found a partner in the Association of Faith Communities (AFC), a coalition of church representatives in Santa Cruz County.
“What we decided at our AFC meeting was that a notice be sent out to all of the churches to encourage them to open their doors on the coldest nights,” says Lutheran Campus Pastor Emeritus at UCSC Herb Schmidt. “It’s the least we can do.”
No warming centers have been established as of yet, but The Warming Group remains diligent.
“We are truly committed to seeing this through,” says Adams. “I would like it to happen next week, or by the next cold snap, but we will work on it as long as we have to.”
The next meeting of The Warming Group will be held at the Louden Nelson Community Center in room one from 7-9 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 21. For more information visit their Facebook page at facebook.com/warmingcenter.
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