A cruel lottery

Homeless deaths outside Sacramento City Hall expose lack of political urgency

Column note

Was I the last reporter to see Michael Nunez alive?

The question keeps turning through my memory. The miserable image of six people at City Hall, using blankets and tattered sleeping bags the night of January 18, is crystallized in my thoughts—some four hours before responders arrived for Nunez’s body. All-day gales blew rain into sheltered recesses, split tree trunks and flooded street corners. And through it all, people suffered outside. I was at City Hall before sundown and approached a group cocooned in nylon, cotton and polyester, visibly shivering against the storm’s intensity. Just before 8:30 p.m., someone there realized that Nunez hadn’t made it.

Six days after that, another man was found dead outside City Hall, this time amidst near-freezing temperatures—again under the shadow of a building meant to embody Sacramento’s civic consciousness.

The irony breeds a shame we can’t ignore.

Since the fatalities, political leaders have busily used news conferences, press releases and sound bites to claim that Sacramento’s winter sanctuary program and warming centers provide a surefire alternative for homeless people. Any reporter working outside the day Nunez died knows that’s simply not the case.

It starts with arithmetic. On January 18, the winter sanctuary program had 100 spots open, and the warming center in Southside Park had another 40. By January 25, when the second man passed away, only 26 new spots had been added off Garden Highway. As I write this, a third warming center on 11th Street adds 40 more, giving us a grand total of 206 chances to stay alive on a winter night for more than 2,600 people living on the streets.

Beyond knowing the odds of getting into one of these programs, it’s important to keep in mind what would happen to anyone who failed in their attempt. On the night Nunez died, trying to walk to Southside Park or, if the second center had been opened, Garden Highway, would have meant trekking for blocks through a chilling downpour. There would be the certainty of getting drenched to the bone without the certainty of getting dry again. For some, it would literally mean risking their lives.

Would you roll the dice? Or would you hunker down and try to stay dry under whatever shelter you’d already found, like the long canopy of City Hall?

The latest warming center on 11th Street is probably the city’s best attempt yet to stave off more tragedies this winter. And it deserves to be recognized as a step in the right direction—but not at the cost of forgetting that thousands of people have no guarantee of surviving the worst nights to come, or that it’s still illegal to use tents, tarps and sleeping bags to even try.