Shelter for two: As Cal Expo opens doors to wildfire evacuees, homeless activists wonder about daily crisis

Event center is an ’empty shell’ for natural emergencies only, says county

This story was made possible by a grant from Tower Cafe.
This is an extended version of a story that appears in the October 19, 2017, issue.

When Cal Expo opened its doors to those displaced by a catastrophic wave of wildfires unleashed across Northern California, two grateful people showed up. For four days, they found shelter as 140 Red Cross staff and volunteers coordinated aid to other evacuation centers.

Kimberly Church thought Cal Expo could use more customers.

The Sacramento City College faculty member, who operates a weekly safe space for homeless adults under 30, started urging her Facebook followers to tell Sacramento’s homeless residents about Cal Expo, which wasn’t screening people before letting them in.

For Church, the decision to open up Cal Expo to victims of a series of fires that have killed at least 41 people, displaced 100,000, destroyed 5,700 structures and torched 213,000 acres as of Monday revealed a blind spot for a daily disaster happening on Sacramento’s watch.

“Isn’t it interesting how we can step over some people to give blankets to other people?” Church said. “There’s an inherent classism to helping people who have been recently unhomed to those who haven’t been by fire or water.”

The Governor’s Office of Emergency Services issued the emergency declaration that opened Cal Expo for evacuees, as it did in January during the Oroville Dam disaster.

“Cal Expo is literally an empty shell. Everything has to be brought there,” said Janna Haynes, a county spokeswoman. “You’re talking about natural disasters versus an ongoing issue.”

For several years, Cal Expo did act as a winter homeless shelter through a city-county partnership, until the county switched to local churches and hotel vouchers in 2014 to reduce costs.

Sacramento homeless activist James “Faygo” Clark doesn’t begrudge Cal Expo for opening its doors during natural and unnatural disasters. “I don’t want to pit the two against each other. But Sacramento needs to do a lot more,” Clark said. “As someone who lives on the streets, I can’t be upset the evacuees are being helped. … But we can also declare a shelter crisis here.”

In recent years, Los Angeles, San Jose and Santa Rosa counties have declared shelter crises to ease zoning rules and health codes, making homeless shelters, navigation centers and supportive housing projects easier to create.

On Saturday, Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 932, which makes additional resources available to Bay Area and Southern California communities that have declared shelter crises. The bill requires participating cities and counties to submit plans to the legislature on how they will address their shelter crises, including using shelters as emergency housing and whether they will bypass local codes.

Sacramento isn’t participating. Neither the city nor county asked to be included in AB 932, said Jessica Duong, a spokeswoman for the bill’s author, Assemblyman Phil Ting.

County spokeswoman Kim Nava said the county didn’t apply to AB 932 since Steve Cantelme, chief of emergency services, wasn’t sure of its value beyond relaxing laws.

The city and county have approved other initiatives to address homelessness, though a vast homeless population remains despite three 10-year county plans to end homelessness. Two city winter shelters are under consideration in North Sacramento.

Asked why the city hasn’t officially declared a homeless crisis, a spokesperson for Mayor Darrell Steinberg said the mayor “already considers homelessness in Sacramento a state of extreme urgency.”

“He has been working tirelessly to put over $100 million of increased capacity into changing the scope and scale of this problem,” Kelly Rivas added.

For Joan Burke, advocacy director at Loaves & Fishes, the wildfire emergencies prompted a time of reflection. “Sometimes situations show the terrible fault lines in our society,” Burke said. “When [Brown] did that for fires, it highlighted the unanswered need for those who are homeless of other causes.”