MENDOCINO Co, CA, 2/28/23 — Over this past weekend, snowstorms in Mendocino County have put residents and travelers passing through in some scary situations, from being stuck in their cars due to highway closures to shivering in their homes without power. For people who work in human services, storms like this necessitate kicking into high gear.
When The Mendocino Voice spoke with Redwood Community Services (RCS) Integrated Health Director Sage Wolf on Tuesday morning, they had finally been able to leave their home and make it into town after bad weather rendered the road impassable for days. For local unhoused people coping with such dangerous conditions, Building Bridges, the Ukiah shelter Wolf runs, was a primary lifeline. By last Friday, the shelter had upped its bed count (typically at 55, but down to 42 recently due to staffing shortages) to offer 59 people a safe place to stay.
Because Mendocino County doesn’t operate warming stations of its own, as county spokesperson Heather Correll Rose detailed to The Voice, partners like RCS are essential. Correll Rose said that the county reached out to Building Bridges ahead of the storm’s onset to ask about its capacity — which for Wolf, meant asking the eight staffers how comfortable they felt with the logistical challenges of attempting to house more people.
“The staff were all on board and really felt good — even though they knew it would be chaotic and we’d stretch ourselves thin — about bringing people in out of the storm,” Wolf said.
On a good day, Building Bridges should have 10 full-time staff to effectively function in its current operations, which include running the overnight shelter and opening for day use once a week, usually on Thursdays. To keep the facility open 24 hours, Wolf would need at least 12 full-time staff members, an upgrade they’re working to fund. But during the snowstorm, Building Bridges has been operating on that day-and-night schedule to ensure guests can do laundry, take a shower, and have somewhere to warm up.
“We’re sustaining it through today, for sure, and likely tomorrow,” Wolf said.
In upping guest numbers, staffers quickly realized they didn’t have enough sheets, blankets, and towels. They called for donations and community members delivered: one business gave a cash donation and a local hospice donated blankets and towels free of charge, among other offerings.
Even having expanded their capacity, though, Building Bridges doesn’t have lodging for everyone in need.
“The staff keep saying: it’s heartbreaking,” Wolf said. “You have to say to the 20 people that are seeking a bed that you only have three today.” Still, they try to help those who can’t sleep at the shelter— people who turn up wet and cold in the middle of the night are offered a hot shower, and they can run their garments through the dryer.
On the coast, where the stormy weather didn’t get quite as intense, Executive Director Paul Davis said his staff still saw an uptick in demand for beds at Fort Bragg’s Hospitality Center, around five more people a night. The shelter offers 24 beds, but can also provide motel vouchers when the facility reaches capacity via the city’s winter shelter program.
“Shelter is what we can do,” Davis said in a phone conversation with The Voice.
Meeting the needs of housed community members during these times of heavy precipitation and cold temperatures is its own effort, the county’s Correll Rose explained.
“Social Services started outreach on Thursday with the increase of the storms to many of their pre-identified high-risk clients to ensure that these individuals have access to heat and food, and a plan in place in the event of sustained power outages,” she wrote in an email to The Voice. “Social Services continues in these efforts and has received only a few requests. All requests have been connected with necessary resources to meet the needs of these individuals.”
Wolf believes none of our country’s infrastructure is truly equipped to help people adequately in disasters; and for our rural county departments, nonprofits, and businesses alike, they said, “We are operating in a resource-deficient state.”
“We don’t have adequate funding to pay a living wage, much less a thriving wage,” they said. “Every place I see says they’re short staffed. … Systems rely on people. If you don’t have the people to have the bandwidth and capacity to be proactive, you’re going to be constantly in a state of reaction. We’re all trying to just make the next minute work.”
Shelters both in Ukiah and Fort Bragg offer bed selection at 2:30 p.m. Wolf encourages community members to be there by 2 p.m., or by 1 p.m. for check-in if they’ve never been to Building Bridges before. Another tip? Leave a message, as manning the phone lines is a task that’s difficult for a small team hosting dozens of guests at the shelter.
“I wish I could afford to just hire somebody that did that,” Wolf laughed. “Please leave messages for us.”
Note: Kate Fishman covers the environment & natural resources for The Mendocino Voice in partnership with a Report For America. Her position is funded by the Community Foundation of Mendocino, Report for America, & our readers. You can support Fishman’s work with a tax-deductible donation here or by emailing [email protected]. Contact her at KFishman@mendovoice.com or at (707) 234-7735. The Voice maintains editorial control and independence.