4 homeless men died of hypothermia in Sacramento last winter

4 homeless men died of hypothermia in Sacramento last winter

Nicholas Cooper was 54 years old.

Kenneth Steele was 41, Jackie Feister 55 and Ahmad Hamilton 48.

The four homeless men all died of hypothermia — in Feister’s case, probable hypothermia — in Sacramento County last winter, according to County Coroner Kimberly Gin. Overnight lows ranged from 37 to 46 degrees on the nights the men died – nights city and county warming centers didn’t open.

The deaths are raising questions about whether city and county officials will open warming centers this winter. The City Council in March voted to open weather respite centers year-round, regardless of temperature, but they have opened sporadically during recent bouts of heat.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, said of the deaths. “Those were totally avoidable if the city and the county had acted proactively to keep people warm and keep people safe, which ultimately keeps people alive.”

The city faced criticism from homeless advocates and members of the public when it did not open a warming center on the night of a major storm in January. City Manager Howard Chan cited concerns that a coronavirus outbreak could occur if the city opened the centers more frequently. Four homeless people died during three days of rain and wind. According to Gin, none of those deaths were from hypothermia or other weather-related causes.

At the time, the city’s practice was to open overnight warming centers only when temperatures dropped to freezing. After the storm, the City Council ordered that the centers should remain open to provide shelter to homeless people even in above-freezing temperatures. The city closed one center Feb. 20 and closed two March 31, city spokesman Tim Swanson said. Workers and a guest at two of the centers tested positive for the coronavirus.

Mayor Steinberg responds

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said he is fighting to open the centers, but stressed the importance of focusing on shelters that move people into permanent housing.

“My office continues to work with partner agencies, my colleagues and our city staff to bring more people indoors,” Steinberg said in a statement. “We are continuing to fight for more respite centers, but the true respite comes when we get people permanently sheltered and housed with whatever help they need to end their homelessness. That is the point of the comprehensive homeless siting plan we passed (earlier this month). People living outdoors face a myriad of dangers, from violence to weather, and live an average of 25 years less than those who live indoors. People should be indoors not just certain days but every day.”

The new Comprehensive Siting Plan to Address Homelessness includes 20 new sites for shelters, tiny homes and sanctioned encampments. But only two sites are set to open before the winter. One is a site for 26 tiny homes for veterans and the other is a site for up to 120 people to sleep in 100 vehicles.

Volunteers in January 2019 estimated 5,570 homeless people were living in Sacramento, including 3,900 sleeping outdoors and in vehicles. They estimated 10,000 to 11,000 people would experience homelessness at some point during the year.

“It’s not either-or, we need to do both,” Erlenbusch said, referring to both the siting plan projects and the respite centers.

Sacramento County plans to hand out additional motel vouchers when certain weather thresholds are met this winter, but does not plan to open warming centers, though that could change, county spokeswoman Janna Haynes said.

The county is sheltering about 350 homeless people through at least Nov. 30 under the state’s Project Roomkey program. The city is sheltering more than 400 people in hotels and 69 women in a Meadowview shelter. It’s opening another 100-bed shelter under the W-X freeway next month. But those shelters are referral-only, and do not allow people to simply walk up to the doors to get indoors when it’s hot, cold, or if the air contains dangerous wildfire smoke. That’s what the respite centers would provide.

“My God it’s 2021 in Sacramento and we can’t even find safe places for people to be during weather events, this is just ridiculous,” said Joe Smith, advocacy director at Loaves and Fishes. “And the wild card in all this is climate change so we have no idea what this winter’s gonna bring.”

City Councilwoman Katie Valenzuela said she is disappointed it is taking so long to open respite centers.

In addition to opening them, the city should work with churches to restart the winter sanctuary program and provide city funding to do so, Valenzuela said. That program, which bused homeless people to rotating churches to spend the night and receive warm meals and basic medical services, ended in the winter of 2019-2020.

“I think we don’t need to reinvent the wheel here,” Valenzuela said. “It’s about ensuring we’re moving the resources in the right direction.”

If the city is not able to open respite centers by winter, staff will seek direction from the council regarding guidance for activating warming centers, Swanson said.

Theresa Clift covers Sacramento City Hall. Before joining The Bee in 2018, she covered local government at newspapers in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from Central Michigan University.

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