The chilly cold nights of rain the past week brought homeless people in from the streets to permanent shelters and temporary warming centers, but the latter are not open frequently enough, protested Peter Marin, a longtime homeless advocate. Ironically, the commercial weather forecasts the centers rely upon originate at the National Weather Service, whose staffers are working on a deferred pay status due to the federal shutdown. Though the meteorologists stoically direct reporters to a press officer in D.C., it’s well known that some federal employees are themselves one paycheck away from a missed mortgage or rent payment.
But in Santa Barbara, the week’s debate has been over opening the county’s Freedom Warming Shelters at 40 degrees, rather than 35 degrees; the criteria for about a decade have been 50 percent chance of rain or 35 degree overnight temps. The program began on an ad hoc basis in 2010 after three homeless people were found dead after a bitter cold snap in January. “Thirty-seven degrees is really, really, really cold,” Kathy Hayes agreed; she directs Freedom Warming Centers with a part-time staff and volunteer locations. “We are open to dialogue after the season ends and before the next one begins November 15. We’d renegotiate our Memorandum of Understanding with 10 host site partners and reassess our staffing needs.” Before the season began was the time to discuss this, not in the middle of their busiest time, she said.
Marin stated Supervisor Das Williams said the county would add funding, but Williams’s aide Darcel Elliott clarified that though Williams had sent a request letter to the cities involved, none had responded. Money, as well as locations and staffing, is the perennial problem. In an email sent by Hayes and Julia Hamilton, the minister at the Unitarian Church, which was the first shelter location and now acts as the fiscal sponsor for Freedom, they state their shelters in five cities opened 145 times so far in the 2018-19 season. According to the National Weather Service, through the end of March, about seven nights of 35 degrees or less could be expected as opposed to roughly 26 nights at 40 degrees.
A second issue raised during the dialogue were children. “The warming centers are not designed for children. The only shelter that takes children is Good Samaritan in Santa Maria,” Hayes said, “but check-in is 4 to 5 p.m. and that doesn’t work for working mothers.” Three children have been brought by parents or grandparents to the shelters this season, one whose mother was jailed and whose guardian was homeless. “We were able to connect them with a resource,” Hayes said, “but there’s a bigger picture we’re missing. The county needs day centers. We need low-barrier shelters in August as well as January. Who do we call when a mother comes in at 10 o’clock at night because of a domestic violence situation?”