Cooked alive

As climate change and wildfire smoke worsen risks of heat exposure, homeless advocates say city needs to relax its criteria for opening cooling centers

Some folks catch shade outside Sacramento Central Library just a few minutes before closing time on Aug. 22.

Some folks catch shade outside Sacramento Central Library just a few minutes before closing time on Aug. 22.

Photo by Dylan Svoboda

At about 5:45 p.m. on Aug. 21, Benny Thomas was one of dozens of people packing their belongings and returning books to the shelves as a voice over the intercom warned visitors of the downtown Sacramento Central Library’s 6 p.m. closing time.

Thomas, who said he's lived on the streets of California's capital city for 12 years, comes to the library four times a week during the scorching summer months. On this day, he was headed back outside to 95 degree heat.

“I come in here to kill time and read my Bible,” Thomas said. “It's hot as hell out there.”

If it was a bit hotter, Thomas might have had a cool place nearby to go. Despite difficulties experienced by those like Thomas, the heat hasn't been intense enough to trigger the opening of Sacramento's 24-hour cooling centers this summer.

City spokesman Tim Swanson said the city follows Sacramento County's severe weather guidance plan, which recommends cities open cooling centers if the high temperature is forecast to be above 105 degrees and the low above 75 degrees for three consecutive days.

Those thresholds are unreasonably high, critics say.

Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, called the policy “inhumane” for thousands of Sacramento residents unable to afford housing or air conditioning.

His organization last week released its annual report showing a record high of 132 homeless people died in Sacramento County last year.

“It's unconscionable that it takes that extreme of weather, for an extended period, to open these things,” Erlenbusch said. “The irony to me is that these government officials will send out all kinds of warnings on 100 degree weather days for folks to avoid going outdoors. Well, what about the homeless folks?”

The city of Sacramento directed those looking to escape the heat to head to their nearest “cool-air” space—a library, community center or public pool. Rivkah Sass, director of the Sacramento Public Library, encouraged anyone looking to beat the heat to come to the library, but acknowledged that can be a big challenge for those who need the spaces the most.

“We're a seven-day-a-week operation, but not all of our locations are open seven days a week,” Sass said. “It might require a car to get to the nearest location, in some cases.”

Sacramento County hasn't experienced any heat-related deaths since the summer of 2017, when six people died of heatstroke from June 16 to July 2 when the average high was 96 degrees, according to the county coroner's office.

And the city and county's cooling center policies weren't made in a vacuum. A city blog post said the plan was formulated with other cities, the county, National Weather Service and homeless advocates.

“It's important for folks to realize that these were not just numbers that were randomly chosen,” Daniel Bowers, emergency management director for the city, said in the post. “There was a method that we followed for establishing them.”

Swanson said it costs about $1,300 a night in staffing and supplies to open a cooling center inside of a community space for a night.

Steve Cantelme, chief of the Sacramento County Office of Emergency Services, said there's nothing stopping cities from opening cooling centers without meeting the temperature thresholds, but it doesn't happen often.

A blanket of smoke and one of the worst air quality readings in the world wasn't enough for the city to open a “clean air space” during the Camp Fire last fall. Erlenbusch called on the city and county to consider poor air quality in their cooling center policy.

Cantelme noted that while some folks believe the temperature thresholds are too high, the county likes to maintain consistency in its cooling center policies.

Several surrounding cities, however, took their efforts a step further than Sacramento by opening cooling centers when they weren't required to do so, though none operated for 24 hours.

In Rancho Cordova, City Hall was used as a cooling center Aug. 14-16 from noon to 6 p.m. On the same days, Elk Grove opened an additional day-time cooling center, according to Cosumnes Fire Department Battalion Chief Dan Quiggle.

Local residents should expect more extended heat waves due to climate change.

According to a recent study from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Sacramento County will experience an average of 31 days per year with a heat index above 100 degrees and 12 days per year above 105 degrees without further action on climate change.

From 1971 to 2000, Sacramento County experienced an average of five days per year with a heat index above 100 degrees and one day per year above 105 degrees, the study said.