MENDOCINO CO., 11/30/23 — Winter shelters for the homeless have opened around Northern California or will open by Dec. 1. The City of Fort Bragg, which used to operate a winter shelter program open to all through the local churches and the Hospitality Center, now offers only an “Extreme Weather Shelter” program, operated by the police department. Fort Bragg Police Chief Neil Cervenka emphasizes there is a big difference between an extreme weather-only shelter and a full-time winter shelter. The Emergency Weather Shelter only opens when it is triggered by the weather — and it’s not open to all. Outsiders usually get one night of services, and then the police-run Crisis Response Unit (CRU) tries to get them back home.
Cervenka described the criteria necessary to access the extreme weather shelter in Fort Bragg.
No beds must be available at the Hospitality House, a shelter run by the Hospitality Center, with 24 beds. People of any gender are welcome, and there is one ADA-equipped room. This means that people must wait until midday to see if a bed is free. When Hospitality House staff determine no beds are available, that triggers the emergency weather shelter, a program that offers a voucher for a motel room. However, this only happens when the National Weather Service-Eureka predicts a 60% chance of 0.1 inch of precipitation or greater or nighttime temperatures less than 40 degrees between 8 p.m.-6 a.m. Moreover, the person cannot have been restricted in the past from the Hospitality House or Motel 6 for rule violations or voluntary departures (meaning they left their shelter room for other housing). And the person must be eligible for a motel voucher. In most cases that means they are considered local. See previous coverage about the “local” issue here.
The Hospitality Center itself does not restrict housing to locals, nor did the churches under the old winter shelter program. The new rules came about when the areas outside of McDonald’s, downtown, Safeway, the Boatyard Shopping Center and Glass Beach were becoming overrun by transients.
The city cracked down, following the advice of the conservative icon Robert Marbut, hired by the county to come up with solutions. Those solutions purport to make it easier for the homeless to get services while making it harder to be homeless without services.
Cervenka, who didn’t want to advertise the opening of the extreme weather shelter, said the city didn’t want anyone to think they can come to Fort Bragg from elsewhere for homeless services. Because of the extreme geographical isolation, this can be harmful for homeless people who might make the trek only to find out they are not eligible for services, he explained in email and during in-person interviews.
“We don’t have the services to support them and folks tend to get `stuck’ here where they have no family or friends to support them,” Cervenka said. The city stepped in at the end of 2021 after the Hospitality Center canceled a winter shelter program it used to run with local churches.
The EWS is not a social services agency like the shelter the churches and Hospitality Center ran.
“A police department is not the correct agency to operate a ‘winter shelter,’ as that would mean a seven-day-a-week commitment over the course of several months,” Cervenka explained. “Besides the enormous cost, staffing would be a tremendous problem. Operating the EWS already strains our resources, but it is good for the community and needs to be done.”
Cervenka said he would be presenting the program at the Dec. 11 meeting of the Fort Bragg City Council. In the past, the council has made changes like extending the end date of the program, but the program is what the council authorized the chief to do.
Cervenka said the CRU team is doing local outreach to homeless individuals this week in preparation for extreme weather, especially for those people who are ineligible for motel vouchers, so they can make other plans. He said that people who are not local need to go to a community that has more resources, including a true winter shelter.
The Fort Bragg extreme weather shelter program is funded partly through a grant.
“The county is the agency we applied to for HHAP (Homeless Housing, Assistance and Prevention) funding to operate the EWS, but they are not overseeing it,” Cervenka said. He added that HHAP funds were disbursed all over the state. “We competed with dozens of applicants for a variety of projects. Most had nothing to do with an EWS. As with any grant, we will have statistics to report to them,” Cervenka said.
Obtaining the grant made some changes to the program.
“The changes are based on best practice for extreme weather shelters. The dates were adjusted to 12/1/23 – 3/31/24 based on best practice, history of the last two years, and long-range weather forecasts at the time of the grant application.” Cervenka added the italics to note that the program ends not when the police department determines but because the funding is based on the National Weather Service’s long-range predictions of how many months extreme weather will last in any given year.
Two Ukiah shelters are open year-round
In 2019, Building Bridges Homeless Resource Center in Ukiah took over the winter shelter program from the Ukiah Police Department (a link on the Ukiah Police Department’s web page for updated winter shelter information is outdated and no longer valid, noted Sage Wolf of Building Bridges). Building Bridges, like Hospitality House, now operates year-round. For the winter, they open the center during the day so people can warm up and get warm clothes. The 55-bed center is referred to as a year-round winter shelter. Building Bridges offers many services that may assist people stuck outside in cold months, such as bus tickets to transients. Intake is Monday through Friday at the present, although Building Bridges’ Sage Wolf explained referrals such as from the hospital or police are accepted on weekends. During weekdays, Building Bridges stops taking names at 2:30 p.m. Then an assessment is done of the rooms available. If long-term residents have not made arrangements ahead of time, that room goes to the newcomers.
The Ford Street Project in Ukiah also offers an emergency shelter program for families year-round. The shelter is available 24/7 to people with children, pregnant women and families in the process of being reunited with their children. Ford Street Program Director Drew Iacomini-Hair said there are 10 dormitories there, and some dorms can accommodate up to five children.
Restrictions a new wrinkle in shelters
Although transient people have moved from town to town since the rail riders of the Great Depression and before, times have changed. Churches and generous citizens once provided a place to sleep. During the last decades of the 20th century and into the first decade of the 21st century, few shelters were restricted by where people hailed from before they became homeless.
Now, many winter shelter programs are restricted to locals. For example, there are several religious and non-religious programs in Sonoma County, each with different rules. Some, like the West County Shelter, require a person to be from Sonoma County.
After Eureka’s program was overwhelmed during the long winter last year, that city, which has one of the region’s highest homeless populations, has reached out for help to a broad range of the local faith community. One religious shelter was overwhelmed by the overflow last winter.