.Open Mic: Sonoma County Fails to Support Homeless During Freeze Emergency

On the morning of Tuesday, Dec. 28, Homeless Action! sent an advisory to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, Santa Rosa officials and media about the need to protect unsheltered residents from the ominous freezing-weather forecast for four successive nights beginning Dec. 29. The County Commission on Human Rights issued a supporting statement the following day.

Established County protocols mandate that forecasts of three consecutive nights at 35 degrees, or just one at below freezing, should trigger emergency precautions to protect those living outdoors.

However, by Wednesday morning, it was clear that the relevant County departments had made no such plans. Instead, the County Administrator’s Office released a freeze warning on Thursday afternoon advising that “residents limit time outdoors, as serious medical conditions including hypothermia and frostbite can develop with prolonged cold weather exposure.” The County’s last point-in-time estimate, conducted in February 2020, estimated that there were 1,702 unsheltered people in Sonoma County, far more than the number of additional beds local agencies provide in the winter. Are we to believe that authorities don’t actually understand that the vulnerable unsheltered have no inside place to go to?

At the 11th hour, Santa Rosa engaged with Catholic Charities to manage pop-up tents with heaters to accommodate 40 people on Wilson Street. Separately, Sonoma Applied Village Services, Homeless Action! and volunteers partnered with the Sebastopol Community Church to accommodate up to 100 people. In Santa Rosa, Sonoma County Acts of Kindness and the Squeaky Wheel Bicycle Coalition set up three 20-person-capacity warming tents.

However, those in the AOK tents were told by police that if seen lying down, they would be arrested. Katrina Phillips, chair of the Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights, regularly checked on the inhabitants of one of the tents. On Jan. 2, one woman told her, “There’s nowhere else to go. We appreciate these warming tents so much. The police were just here threatening to arrest us if we fall asleep. It’s like they want us to die.”

The next morning, the tent had been destroyed and torn down in the freezing rain by Santa Rosa Police. Is this discrimination and wanton cruelty acceptable to the people of Sonoma County?

Kathleen Finigan is a member of Homeless Action!

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