The Storm Unsheltered

Warming Center takes in houseless residents

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Screen Shot 2017-01-13 at 10.18.51 AMSanta Cruz County received at least three inches of rain from this past weekend’s storm, which is more than half of the total rainfall in all of December. High winds, excessive high tides and consistent rain is expected through the week. Houseless individuals, who face this storm head on with little to buffer the extreme weather, are worried and left with few options.

In 2016, 37 houseless individuals died in Santa Cruz County — 43 percent died outdoors or in a vehicle and one died in a storage container, according to a Homeless Persons Health Project report. This follows 38 deaths in 2015.

Kenneth L. White, a houseless resident in Santa Cruz, faces even fewer options for shelter because of his reluctance to leave his “companion” dog, Cobra. The only place that let him sleep with his pet was the Warming Center.

“When it’s really wet I survive outside, camping away from everybody,” White said. But during this storm he took a chance on the Warming Center and received a new coat and hat and was able to sleep with Cobra. “I got good sleep and kept warm.”

There are a number of Santa Cruz shelters that serve the houseless community. These include the Winter Shelter, which is county-sponsored, and the Warming Center, a grassroots and community-funded group. The Warming Center opens its doors only when temperatures drop below 35 degrees or in extreme rain events, during which they’re  known for housing the most people.

Over the weekend, the Warming Center was packed to the brim in its downtown location, with 65 individuals on Saturday night and 70 on Sunday night.

“What we’re doing is identifying the vast Santa Cruz need for shelter. And it’s been very inspiring to see the effect it has on people when we’re doing the work,” said Warming Center founder Brent Adams. “It doesn’t feel depressing. It feels awesome when people are back and have benefited by our hard work.”

The Warming Center hinges on each of its five church locations, which have offered their buildings for use as one-night shelters, and 20 to 25 volunteers each time they open, Adams said. Volunteers do street outreach and hand out fliers, make soup, set up and clean locations and wash hundreds of blankets after the shelters are used.

Maya Lord, a UC Santa Cruz student who has volunteered with the Warming Center since the beginning of this winter, said this weekend brought in many drenched guests who were eager to change into the clothing made available through donations.

“Everyone was asking for warm socks and talking about how cold they were and how wet their feet and their stuff was,” Lord said.

The Warming Center is entering 2017 strong, Adams said, because of a holiday fundraiser that brought in over $10,000. With the head start on fundraising, the center plans to add a paid position to further some of Adams’ duties such as advocacy efforts, night-shelter management and coordinating fiscal sponsorship.

Currently it costs about $15,000 to run the Warming Center for a year, which is raised through local grants and individual donations from $5  to $500. Whereas the county-funded Winter Shelter works with an operating budget of more than $200,000, which allows for a permanent location and paid positions.

Because the Warming Center rotates between donated locations and depends on volunteer labor, they can direct a majority of their funds toward sleeping mats, blankets and laundry costs. However, in the coming year, the Warming Center wants to expand its efforts by securing a downtown location, budget for a paid position and finalize their 501(c)(3) non-profit status.

Although the storm swept into Santa Cruz with trepidation and forewarning, destroying a pipeline and closing many roads, the Warming Center prevented more than 100 individuals from having to face it alone on the street.

“We gauge our success,” Adams said, “by our ability to shelter people on the coldest, wettest nights.”

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