Freeze out

Homeless advocates criticize county cold shelter requirements

Andy Holcombe hopes the Butte County Board of Supervisors will listen to public input on emergency planning.

Andy Holcombe hopes the Butte County Board of Supervisors will listen to public input on emergency planning.


As a veteran public interest lawyer and former Chico mayor, Andy Holcombe is no stranger to bureaucratic morass or the perils of unsound government directives. This is what he and other advocates for the local homeless population said they see in Butte County’s contingency plan to provide shelter during extreme cold weather conditions, which Holcombe described as “destined to fail.”

“The Greater Chico Homeless Task Force feels, and I feel personally, that it’s not much of a plan,” Holcombe said Tuesday (Dec. 16) at City Hall, as the task force prepared for its monthly meeting. “It’s not going to meet the needs of homeless people on the street who have no place to sleep and stay warm.”

At issue is the Extreme Cold Weather Plan, a piece of the larger Emergency Operations Plan, which dictates certain services be provided by counties during all types of disasters. Holcombe and Ted Sanberg, a pastor at Chico’s First Baptist Church and vice chair of the task force, presented their concerns about the draft Extreme Cold Weather Plan during the public comment period of the Butte County Board of Supervisors’ Dec. 9 meeting. Primary among those concerns are two triggers that must be met before the county opens a warming shelter—a forecast of less than 25 degrees after 6 p.m., and zero vacancies at all other local shelters.

Holcombe noted the only major local homeless shelter—the Torres Community Shelter—is not designed for last-minute, emergency situations, with shelter guests required to attend interviews, complete an intake process and be assigned a social worker before they can stay. Though currently serving more guests than in past years, the Torres Shelter has never been completely full.

The task force finds more fault with the 25-degree requirement, which they say is significantly lower than the 32-degree trigger set by the California Emergency Management Agency’s statewide counterpart to the local plan.

“People freeze at 32 degrees, and they can die from hypothermia at 42 degrees if they’re wet,” Holcombe said. “I find their 25-degree requirement, frankly, ridiculous … it’s not supported by science, and doesn’t agree with the state recommendations.”

Holcombe said the task force first heard details of the plan when John Gulserian, head of the county’s Office of Emergency Management, addressed the group in October. Holcombe said—and Butte County Public Information Officer Casey Hatcher confirmed—that the plan is not currently available to the public (Hatcher said this is because it is still in draft form). Holcombe asked the supervisors to agendize it for public discussion in January.

“It’s supposed to be a public plan, but the public doesn’t even know about it, can’t see it and there’s no apparent involvement by the public,” Holcombe said.

Hatcher explained the state mandates counties have emergency disaster plans. The state provides models, but individual counties set specifics, and she noted the triggers are flexible guidelines. The county could choose to open temporary shelters any time officials determine there is sufficient need, she added.

Hatcher also said the shelters are meant to be activated in times when residents are temporarily displaced from their homes, and not designed to serve the chronically homeless. She used weather disabling power for home heating as an example of a need the shelters serve.

Although homeless people would also be welcome, Hatcher said the shelters are not part of services regularly provided to the homeless community by the county, which she noted include help with employment, food, housing and health care.

Holcombe questioned whether the county even has locations for shelters ready, and Hatcher said the county is prepared. On Dec. 11, the county and Red Cross provided shelter for Palermo residents displaced by flooding at an Oroville church.

In contrast to county efforts, or lack thereof, to provide shelter, Holcombe noted that Safe Space—shelters held at rotating locations through January, coordinated by the Chico Homeless Action Team—have accomplished a great deal through the combined efforts of volunteers and faith-based groups. Though not scheduled to open until Dec. 14, the program started early to provide shelter during last week’s severe storm. Safe Space housed 30 people the first night and 54 the second, according to Cynthia Gailey, who is spearheading the Safe Space effort.

“What they’re doing is great,” Holcombe said of Safe Space. “But why should the responsibility rest solely on church and volunteer groups? This is everybody’s responsibility.

“The community can provide the volunteers, but they could really benefit with some logistical and location help from the county.”