2023 cohort
Water and drought

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Heat, floods and homelessness: Unhoused in Sacramento’s extreme weather

Homelessness, climate change and health care are clearly intertwined with each other

Sarah Yee, Emma Canillo

November 23, 2023

About this story

This story was produced by a reporter in the 2023 cohort of the AAJA/Calmatters JCal program and originally published in Sacramento Bee.

One night in January, as severe rainstorms battered the city, Joyce Williams and Sharon Jones were shaken awake by a fellow unhoused woman at a riverfront encampment near the Sacramento River. 

They feared the water would engulf them, their belongings and their dogs before they could escape.

“It was dark and the water was coming in fast and hard, and there was so much debris,” Williams said. 

Married for 22 years, Williams and Jones said they have endured seven challenging years of life on the street, regularly witnessing heart attacks, heat strokes and exposure to parasite-infested water — all while the threat of city sweeps loomed. Their situation was further worsened by extreme weather conditions, from rainstorms to heat waves. 

“We’re doing the best we can,” Williams said. “We just go week by week.” 

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Heat warnings — and political pressure — across California have intensified, prompting communities in cities like Sacramento to seek long-term solutions to address homelessness and a changing climate.

The thunderstorms and floods claimed the lives of 17 people, including two who were unhoused. Within the past year, extreme weather events in Sacramento were ranked among the most severe ever recorded.

A statewide survey published by UC San Francisco in June noted that approximately 1% of nearly 3,200 participants lost housing due to “climate emergencies.”

“Homelessness, climate change, and health care are clearly intertwined with each other,” said Bob Erlenbusch, who is the executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. “People would be living longer if they weren’t living outside. Their health would be much better.” 

Yet lawmakers have recognized the funding gap that exists for permanent supportive housing and have argued for more immediate solutions. Statewide, Governor Newsom launched an expanded budget to fund climate resilience centers that target extreme heat waves, such as Sacramento’s Outreach and Engagement Center.
Assemblymember Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) suggested the gap between the state budget and the average cost of housing per unhoused person is too vast to bridge in 2023.

“Permanent supportive housing… is like $600,000 per door and we have 171,000 homeless in California,” McCarty said. “171,000 homeless times $600,000 is like $100 billion.”

While legislators examine the fiscal reality, on-the-ground volunteers are putting in a sweat – literally.

“Knock knock! Sacramento Street Medicine!” said one of them. It was a 103-degree morning in early July. Volunteers with Sacramento Street Medicine, covered in sweat, had peered down an embankment near the Sacramento River where an encampment — referred to as Camp Gold by the volunteers  — had been set up. 
They had descended below street level into the partial cover of tree branches and bushes pulling wagons full of supply packs containing items like ACE bandages, hand sanitizer, socks, water, hydration packs and oranges.

(SACRAMENTO, Calif.) – JULY 02: Sacramento Street Medicine member, Sam Sears, left, and volunteers organize supply packs for an unhoused community member to distribute around the American River Parkway in Sacramento on July 2, 2023. Photo by Sarah Yee

“These people are survivors,” said Sam Sears, a volunteer lead. “I go out there for an afternoon in 100-degree weather and I feel like I’m going to die.”

Their main goal was to preserve ties after city sweeps and volatile weather fragmented encampments around the American River Parkway.

An unhoused person living at Camp Gold shared they had been swept eight times in two weeks.

But not all camps have to worry about city sweeps anymore.

In April, Williams and Jones secured a lease alongside other unhoused residents for the city’s first self-governing encampment — known as Camp Resolution — on an empty, public lot in the heart of California’s capital, equipped with a few generators that power most, but not all, trailers. 

Much of the climate protective equipment William and Jones have is self-financed — including $800 for an all-purpose weather tent and an additional $800 for the generator they’ve had for the last five years.

About a year ago, Sacramento Homeless Union filed a lawsuit against the city and county for “state-created danger; destruction of homeless encampments; failure to protect homeless persons from extreme heat in violation of State (Health and Safety) Code.”

The lawsuit alleged that, at a Miller Park “Safeground” encampment, tents perched on asphalt reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit and water rations were totaling less than half the daily recommended intake.

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“For people with respiratory illnesses or diabetes or chronic heart conditions, there’s a lot of stress on their bodies from the experience,” said Joe Smith, a local nonprofit director and advocate. “There’s a lot of stress on their mind from the psychology of what they’re going through.”

(SACRAMENTO, Calif.) – JUNE 23: Camp Resolution leaders Sharon Jones, left, and Joyce Williams point towards the banner they have been painting, one of many that decorate the gates of the Camp Resolution site on Colfax Street in Sacramento. Photo by Sarah Yee

Smith is program director of the Sacramento Outreach and Engagement Center, a former science museum which opened in September 2022 on Auburn Boulevard to provide relief for up to 50 people experiencing homelessness in the city’s second district. 

“In the case of a weather activation, such as temperatures over 100 degrees, we can be activated as a weather respite center and take in 50 more people,” Smith said. “Once the heat event is over, we go back to our original 50 people a day.”

Virtually half of people entering the center later found more stable placement – whether that’s sober living or long-term shelter, according to Smith.

The center also provides access to primary care and mental health support and accepts pets, which leads to higher utilization and better health for animal companions. 

“It’s a sense of stability for people,” Smith said. “It’s only temporary but it’s a chance to catch your breath.”

The Sacramento City Council unanimously voted on Aug. 1 to change the weather activation criteria, which will now allow the center to also open during any National Weather System extreme weather event and when the air quality index reaches unhealthy levels.

Prior to the vote, temperatures needed to be above 100 degrees Fahrenheit for two days while not dipping below 75 degrees Fahrenheit at night. 

Ahead of numerous summer council meetings to revise the weather activation criteria, Smith, like other advocates, called for more flexible factors to allow for the center to open more frequently.  

As the hottest months of the year wane, Smith reported the center has served 1,946 people since it first opened September of last year. Two hundred sixty-two of these people came for heat respite and 1,684 for cold weather respite.

 “I’m glad that they modified the activation for the heat,” Smith said. “It did make it available for more days for the center to be open for weather respite, and in a perfect world, we would have 24/7 respite regardless of weather criteria.”

Last September’s heat wave broke records in downtown Sacramento, with temperatures spiking at 116 degrees. This September, the hottest temperature was 20 degrees less

“As someone who’s lived outside, even a day can be dangerous,” Smith said, who was homeless between 2005 and 2011. 

Still, many of the climate challenges Smith personally experienced during that time have significantly worsened. When faced with overwhelming heat, he would seek refuge by going to the American River, as did others.

For three decades, the American River Parkway encampment, known as the Island, was a centralized site for many of Sacramento’s unhoused.

But times aren’t the same.

There’s more frequent flooding and more city sweeps.

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After an encampment was swept in May, a handful of the displaced established Camp Resolution. Others, like residents at Camp Gold, have continued to seek shelter where they can – underneath bridges, foliage, and alongside I-80.

“I just wish they would stop the sweeps because it’s really hard for continuity of care,” said Sears, the Camp Gold lead with Sacramento Street Medicine. “So while the heat wasn’t as bad (this summer), it was a difficult summer to locate people and to reach people.” 
This month, Sacramento Street Medicine has expanded their outreach to weekdays. What is particularly remarkable, Sears noted, is how the community supports one another during difficult weather conditions. During a flood, residents help pick up the belongings of those in wheelchairs.

“If someone’s having heat exhaustion, they give up their water,” Sears said.

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She added that most of the encampments that Sacramento Street Medicine serves are similar to Camp Gold: mobile, smaller in size and without much, if any, of the electricity and technology seen at Camp Resolution. 

In May, a Sacramento Grand Jury ruled the city’s past homelessness solutions ineffective.
Assemblymember McCarty, along with three other legislators, proposed a joint powers authority to “triage” homeless solutions going forward. This authority would consist of officials from both the city and county of Greater Sacramento to centralize and accelerate initiatives and funding to address homelessness. 

“We’re all in this together,” McCarty said. “A community, government – we can’t solve it with just one person.”

McCarty added that the joint response is multi-faceted, involving congregate centers, tiny homes, and secure parking for cars and RVs.

For now, advocates pose Camp Resolution as a model.

Camp Resolution’s lease agreement allows the group of roughly 50 unhoused people to live on the lot without the fear of being swept until each individual is housed.

“Camp Resolution is a really great transition and it could potentially be the future of how California can go about dealing with the housing crisis,” Sears said.

About the authors

Sarah Yee is a 2023 JCal reporter from Placer County.

Emma Canillo is a 2023 JCal reporter from Sacramento County.

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JCal is a free program that immerses California high school students into the state’s news ecosystem. It is a collaboration between the Asian American Journalists Association and CalMatters.