Ricardo Lopez, 61, has made shelter in the wooded area near the San Lorenzo River for the last five years. When Lopez wakes up on cold winter mornings, he finds fresh ice on the ground next to him.
“Every morning, there’s ice,” Lopez said. “It’s freezing out here.”
There are 3,536 houseless individuals like Lopez in Santa Cruz, according to the 2013 census. Year after year, winter claims the lives of those unprepared for the cold weather. Defenseless against winter’s bite, seven houseless people in the Bay Area died due to hypothermia in the last three months alone.
Nightly winter temperatures range from 21 to 36 degrees in San Jose, said Brent Adams, meeting facilitator for Residents for a Coldest Nights Warming Center — also known as The Warming Center.
Although Santa Cruz temperatures don’t drop as low as they do in San Jose, Adams said, the ocean air can create a wind chill harsh enough to freeze the ground.
“Because we’re close to the ocean, it’s more humid and there’s more moisture in the air, so something like 40 degrees can feel colder than freezing,” Adams said.
The Homeless Services Center (HSC) offers a shelter 365 days a year. However, it only holds 46 people. HSC also offers a winter shelter at the National Guard Armory in DeLaveaga Park. The facility accommodates as many as 100 people, but is only open from November to April.
To prevent hypothermia-related deaths from occurring in Santa Cruz, Adams created Coldest Nights Warming Center to implement a warming center partnership. A warming center is a facility where houseless individuals can go for the night when temperatures plummet. The spaces where warming centers are held can vary from music halls to churches.
As long as weather conditions are below a given degree, Adams said, the warming centers would be open no matter the time of year. They would shelter 200 people each night, spread throughout multiple spaces.
The project would establish an automatic warning system with a notification transmitted throughout the city, advising the houseless to reach the nearest warming center, Adams said.
“Warming centers would be contacted and then staff would open up and lay out the bedding, pads, stacks of blankets, coffee and cocoa,” Adams said. “Monitors would be there all night to make sure the facility is safe and to make sure the behavior is within the normal behavior for people trying to sleep at night.”
In addition to volunteers monitoring patrons, The Warming Group would give each center liability insurance in case of uncooperative behavior. For example, if a space is vandalized while serving as a warming center, The Warming Group would reimburse the venue for any damage caused.
While initiatives like these are crucial for supporting houseless individuals, Adams said providing services to the houseless should not be the burden of one entity alone.
“We want to create partnership with all of the players in Santa Cruz,” Adams said. “For instance, the Red Cross, potentially Salvation Army, Homeless Services Center, the Association of Faith Communities, churches and the city and county.”
Adams expects the group will have a proposal ready for City Council within the next two weeks, allowing The Warming Group to more solidly plan out logistics like the designated temperature and liability contracts with venues. He hopes The Warming Center Project will be in full effect in 2015.
“By this time next year, it must be active,” Adams said. “To have a well working active project, it needs to break fast this year because when it gets warmer, people are much less interested.”
One member of local government who has shown support for The Warming Center Project is vice mayor Don Lane, who was one of the founders of the Homeless Services Center 18 years ago.
“HSC serves as [a warming center] when that’s needed, but that won’t meet the whole need if there’s a really severe cold,” Lane said. “It would be of value if there were some other places in Santa Cruz county serving that same purpose.”
Although warming centers are not the ultimate goal in his plans to end houselessness, Lane said the centers are necessary.
“[The project] would just fill a very specific emergency need,” Lane said. “It’s not going to fundamentally change the situation of homelessness, but it would save lives and preserve people’s health.”
Lane is working on a project focused on helping people out of houselessness so they don’t need emergency services.
“We need to make sure we have a good range of emergency services,” Lane said, “but I’d like to see our system addressing homelessness geared much more toward permanent solutions.”
Getting people in permanent housing requires organizations to develop closer, more intimate relationships with clients, so they must spend more time and energy on a few individuals at a time, rather than several at once, Adams said.
“While permanent housing solutions are protecting a few people with housing, there needs to be other mechanisms to create security for the larger amount,” Adams said.
The Warming Group hopes to create something that can appeal to everyone, Adams said, even to people who are typically opposed to houseless programs and projects.
“Some people are homeless for reasons we don’t agree with,” Adams said, “but I think everyone can agree no one should freeze at night.”
Stay up-to-date with The Warming Group via Facebook.com/WarmingCenter. The Warming Center Group will hold its next meeting on Jan. 28 at the Louden Nelson Community Center.