Warming centers could be key to survival for SLO County’s homeless population

Jon Akeman and Linda Mcclelland play cards on Wednesday evening at the 5Cities Homeless Coalition’s warming center, located in a county social services department conference room in Arroyo Grande.
Jon Akeman and Linda Mcclelland play cards on Wednesday evening at the 5Cities Homeless Coalition’s warming center, located in a county social services department conference room in Arroyo Grande. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Finally, the rains we’ve been waiting for are here. Let’s not lose sight of that good news.

With the storms, though, come floods, power outages, falling trees and traffic accidents on rain-slick roads. In response, local governments have been working on preparedness plans for months. That’s excellent. Yet once again, agencies are doing some scrambling when it comes to providing emergency shelter for the homeless population – the demographic most vulnerable to the ill effects of cold, wet weather.

Homeless people face the very real danger becoming severely ill or even dying of exposure. Just last month, for example, two homeless men, one 36 and the other 59, died in Monterey on an exceptionally cold night. Police don’t yet know the official cause of death, but believe cold weather was a factor.

In San Luis Obispo County, organizations have opened warming centers in four communities – San Luis Obispo, Arroyo Grande, Atascadero and Paso Robles – to provide temporary, overnight shelter when it’s raining or predicted to rain and/or when temperatures drop to the 30s (the exact policies vary by shelter).

But in this season of severe weather, that may not be enough.

As Tribune writer Cynthia Lambert reported on Saturday, some homeless advocates are urging county and city officials to declare a shelter crisis -- a designation that would make it easier for agencies to open public buildings for use as emergency shelters. It also would provide agencies with some immunity from liability.

We can’t see a downside to making the declaration. It would not obligate officials to open shelters, but it could streamline the process if they decide they need to set up warming centers in more locations. It also could draw attention to the situation, and perhaps attract volunteers, contributions of sleeping bags and warm clothing, or even offers of locations for warming centers.

Some officials, though, question whether there’s a need to do more when existing centers aren’t full. For example, only 17 people stayed at Prado Day Center on Monday night, though it can accommodate many more than that.

So what gives?

Janna Nichols, executive director of the 5Cities Homeless Coalition, which runs a warming center in South County, has some ideas based on her experiences last year: “Did they not come last year because it wasn’t cold or wet enough, were we too far, or did they not want to leave their dogs or their stuff?”

With that in mind, the organization is working on opening in another location that would provide more space for storage and for pets. It’s also providing transportation to the existing center in Arroyo Grande.

We commend the 5Cities Homeless Coalition for working so hard to remove barrieres that could be preventing some people from seeking shelter. We strongly urge all warming centers to keep requirements, rules and regulations to a minimum.

That was, after all, the direction taken when the program first started several years ago: to provide temporary, emergency shelter for those who might not qualify for conventional homeless shelters because they weren’t sober, weren’t good at following lots of rules or didn’t want to sign on for mandatory services or programs.

In other words, the idea was to save lives – not to change them.

We also would like to see some warming centers open their doors more often. In particular, we urge CAPSLO to re-examine its criteria for opening Prado Day as an overnight warming center. Its current policy is the most stringent in the county; it opens only when there are two consecutive days of rain and/or temperatures drop to 32 degrees or lower.

By contrast, the 5Cities Homeless Coalition opens its warming center when there’s a 50 percent or greater chance of rain at night and/or temperatures drop to 39 degrees or lower. That’s a more humane standard, and we urge CAPSLO to adopt it.

If staying open more nights requires more funding from the county and city, it’s worth it; it would cost far more to provide emergency services to someone dying of the cold on a sidewalk or in a creek bed.

If more volunteers are required – and we’re hearing there’s a desperate need for volunteers to staff warming centers – agencies must step up their outreach efforts.

We know this to be a caring community of people who are willing, even anxious, to help. But it’s going to take more than the usual channels to get the word out. It’s going to require a full-fledged campaign – we’re talking social media, posters, outreach to churches and service organizations, public service announcements – to let people know they are needed.

Of course, if more warming centers are opened and more volunteers are recruited, there’s still no guarantee that people in need of emergency shelter will show up; we could still see low numbers at some warming centers.

But consider: Wouldn’t it be far better to open a center for just a handful of people than to read about them dying on the street?

How to help

Interested in volunteering at a warming center in your community?

Go to http://www.volunteerslo.org/, or contact the following organizations for more information:

  • 5Cities Homeless Coalition: Warming Center hotline, 710-4330, or email info@5chc.org
  • CAPSLO: Call Grace McIntosh at 291-1008 or email gmcintosh@capslo.org for information on warming center at Prado Day
  • Paso Cares: call 712-7068 or email pasocares@gmail.com
  • Atascadero warming centers: Call Mark Nellesen at 391-4008