Storm of shame: Social media criticism prompts Sacramento officials to open ‘weather refuge’ for homeless residents

City and county had no protocol in place to protect most vulnerable during extreme weather event

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the January 12, 2017, issue.

Social media flexed its pulpit power over the weekend, prompting local officials to take action after separate Facebook threads condemned Sacramento’s slack response to protecting homeless residents from extreme weather.

On Monday night, city and county officials announced the pool house inside of the city’s Southside Park would open the following evening as a “weather refuge” to anyone needing shelter from the worst of the storms battering the region this week.

The move was a corrective to the political flat-footedness that greeted the weather system without any sort of plan in place to shield the most vulnerable from its fury.

To recap, officials have been on alert for a reputed storm-of-the-decade scenario that’s been spewing rain and fattening tributaries since Friday. City, county and state agencies issued numerous alerts about the system and where housed residents could pick up sandbags and other supplies. But there was no protocol in place to address the increased shelter needs the storms created for those experiencing homelessness, many of whom camp along river banks to avoid arrest by authorities (because sleeping outdoors is still illegal in Sacramento).

What shelters are in place had filled up, while the city and county had recently closed the pilot warming center they co-operate at Southside Park, because overnight temperatures technically breached 40 degrees Fahrenheit thanks to the inclement weather.

Grace Loescher, a youth development director at Tubman House, a supportive housing nonprofit, condemned the vicious Catch-22 homeless residents found themselves in on her Facebook page. “Consider sleeping under a freeway to get shelter from the elements and you’re a target for arrest,” Loescher wrote in a January 7 post shared 17 times. “Sleep by the river to hide from authorities, [and] you may be swept up in flood waters and die.”

Both the rising Sacramento and American rivers were predicted to flirt with flooding from Monday night into early Wednesday morning. Arden Creek overflowed on Sunday.

Among those to directly petition their elected representatives for help on the shade-throwing, election-steering, kitten-video-sharing social media platform were activists Tamie Dramer and Paula Lomazzi, who, in separate threads, tagged downtown Councilman Steve Hansen, in whose district the warming center is located.

That led to an offline phone conversation between Dramer and Hansen, and looped back online with a roving, somewhat defensive back-and-forth involving Dramer, Hansen and Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna, who took exception to the idea that the county dropped the ball.

The thread ended diplomatically with the three planning to meet in person.

Reached by phone, Hansen told SN&R he saw a need to respond to Mother Nature’s tantrums regardless of jurisdiction. “During emergencies, I think we should be prepared to offer shelter to people experiencing homelessness. And we’re still figuring out ways to get that right,” Hansen acknowledged.

Neither Serna nor Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg responded to emails seeking comment, but the two released a joint statement regarding the opening of Southside’s pool house as a refuge “during what is predicted to be the most severe stages of the current storm system.” The statement added that the two jurisdiction would partner on developing criteria “for when to open a weather refuge center moving forward.”

The statement made no mention of the social media posts.</p. <p>Lomazzi, director of the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee, felt the Facebook activism drew a quick political response. “But there should have been a policy already in place for extreme or dangerous weather conditions,” she added in an email.