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Weather hazards and a lawsuit - the fight to keep our unhoused community safe

Thank you to Crystal Sanchez (pictured below), President of the Sacramento Homeless Union, for sharing this important update with us!

On June 24, 2022 a lawsuit was filed in the United States Court Eastern District of California on behalf of Sacramento's unhoused by the Sacramento homeless Union, a local chapter of the California Homeless Union Statewide Organizing Council, on behalf of itself and those it represents: Betty Rios, Donta Williams, Falisha Scott, and all those similarly situated. The lawsuit was filed seeking a temporary restraining order and the mandatory injunction to prevent life-threatening heat related harm to members of the Sacramento homeless community. Just two days later on June 28, 2022 the 2022 point in time (PIT) count was released.

PIT page is linked here.

Image from PIT outreach - pulled from Sac Steps Forward page

Although the point in time count often reads grossly low due to volunteer capacity and lack of ability to actually count all unhoused people, the results were still a devastating blow to what we already knew: that homelessness has increased in Sacramento.

Before we go into the lawsuit and the inequities experienced by those living without a roof, let's review a few statistics:

  • Homelessness increased 67% in Sacramento County since 2019

  • There was a 72% increase in individuals counted, a 15% increase in families with children counted and a 5% youth increase

  • The unsheltered results show 30% of the unhoused counted live in tents, 22% live in another option, and 19% live in vehicles. While homelessness in the sheltering system was 28% which included 12% in emergency shelter, 9% in hotels or motel programs, and 7% in transitional living

It has now been reported that we have more homelessness then San Francisco.

Some reporting factors that must be added and addressed are that most unsheltered individuals in Sacramento County have been facing prolonged challenges with housing insecurity and homelessness since before COVID 19. This can be demonstrated by the fact that 50% of unhoused folx became homeless more than 3 years ago.

It's also stated in the report that rents in Sacramento have substantially increased, on average, by 20%, since March of 2020 (the beginning of the pandemic) through November of 2021.

A bright spot: the number of veterans experiencing homelessness has decreased since 2019

*veterans represent approximately the 7% of all persons experiencing homelessness in Sacramento in 2022

It is well known to those who are working within the unhoused community - but may be alarming to those who do not - that black residents are more likely to experience homelessness. To be specific their likelihood of experiencing homelessness is three to four times the amount of other demographics.

One more disheartening fact from the report: 58% percent of unsheltered adults reported at least one disability

Homelessness is multifaceted and it is impacting the entire community. It is a social injustice, a racial injustice, a climate injustice, a criminal injustice, and a disability injustice, to name a few

The Sacramento homeless Union filed this lawsuit on June 24th 2022, in the midst of a 7-day heatwave. Thousands of people including thousands of homeless union members were directly impacted by heat that placed them at high risk of suffering heat stroke, physical harm, and even death. In 2020 Crystal Sanchez co-authored a story with the Sac News and Review on the vulnerability of unhoused folx to extreme heat - you can find this pieces linked here.

During this most recent extreme heat wave, multiple encampments were forced to move. The physical stressors of having to move an encampment while being subjected to extreme heat is deadly. Crystal has spoken on witnessing hundreds of sweeps over the years, and can vouch for how excruciatingly horrific they are.

People are being forced away from publicly visible shady areas by local municipalities to appease the complaints of people sitting in air conditioned buildings.

During these displacements, unhoused folx are being offered spaces in what is known as the City sanctioned Safe Ground. Safe Ground is made up of tents in a row, side by side, on hot asphalt with a locking gate around them. Limited to no services are available for the folx staying there - besides the staff that watch the program. Temperatures inside tents have been recorded as being upward of 115+ degrees, reaching as far as to temperatures of over 150+. These temperatures were seen even in the evening, due to the high temperatures reached by the asphalt under the tents.

Dr. Flojuane Cofer, a local advocate and Senior Director of Policy at Public Health Advocates, whom graduated with a Bachelor's of Science degree in Chemistry, a Bachelor of Arts degree in Women's Studies, a Minor in Mathematics, a Master's degree in Public Health and a Doctorate degree in Epidemiology made the following statements (pulled from language used in the lawsuit) regarding the hazards of experiencing living outside in high temperatures:

Heat related mortality and morbidity deaths and illness from heat exposure are severely underreported and vary from year to year. Heat causes more reported deaths per year on average in the United States than any other weather hazard, yet heat/related illness and deaths are generally preventable. Heat related mortality (deaths) and morbidity (illness) increase during heat waves . Heat related illness encompasses a broad spectrum of disease, ranging from mild heat cramps to severe, life-threatening heat stroke, to death. Climate change is expected to lead to more frequent and extreme periods of warmer temperatures, thus posing a greater threat to public health

Another quote from Dr. Flojaune Cofer:

Heat contributes to death among people with certain health conditions such as heart or lung disease. It has also been linked to increased hospital visits for heart attacks, strokes, lung disease, dehydration, diabetes and acute kidney failure. In addition, warming temperatures have been associated with increased mental health related emergency room visits, including for violence and self-harm, and with premature birth and stillbirth. While anyone can suffer from heat related illness, certain groups are at higher risk, such as the elderly, young children, people with pre-existing health conditions, and the economically disadvantaged particularly, most particularly, the unhoused. Those engaged in vigorous physical activity outdoors, such as workers and construction, firefighting, and agriculture are also at greater risk. Exertion including the physical stress on the homeless of being forcefully moved from place to place can lead to acute heat related injury and even death.

Lastly, from Dr. Flojaune Cofer:

With regards to the "safeground” City sanctioned encampment I have read the declaration of Falicia Scott, a current resident. The conditions she describes both in regard to the dangerously elevated temperature levels in the interior of the tents, and to the amount of water being provided, combine to create an unacceptably high risk of dehydration, heat stress, hyperthermia, irreversible damage to internal organs, and death. The placing of tents in very close quarters on heat absorbing and retaining asphalt surfaces of the Miller Park parking lot, and the resulting extreme temperatures within the tents, represent a dangerously elevated risk of harm. The amount of water that is being provided to those at Safe Ground reported by Falicia Scott falls dangerously below - by roughly 50% - the amount required to keep persons exposed to extreme heat (either outside or within their tents) safe.

Statement continued:

From a public health standpoint, the response, or lack thereof, from the City and County of Sacramento to extreme heat conditions and temperatures approaching triple digits is clearly evident from this testimony. Once these conditions are present, it is too late to implement and execute a plan. The battle is won or lost in preparation. In my professional opinion, the failure of the City and County to provide sufficient air conditioned indoor spaces for its unhoused residents is medically reckless and inexcusable

During the most recent heatwave, an inadequate respite response was put in place, and at times even the resources from THAT response weren't available. The County of Sacramento opened a respite center for a few days in local welfare offices with no transportation provided, and they opened after business hours, at 4 pm.

The City of Sacramento did not open any respite except for the science center that was previously supposed to open as a 24/7 location, but was instead stipulated as an emergency use only site. In fact, this $3.3 million dollar respite building has sat empty, with the exception of the community org using it as office space. See the ABC10 interview that shows this ridiculousness here.

The Sacramento Homeless Union will continue to fight to end homelessness through fighting for Housing Now and No More Death on the Streets. We must break down the inequities facing those in poverty and demand accountability and transparency. People are dying due to bad policies and the lack of understanding of the realistic impacts of what is happening to human life on the streets.

People are not data and numbers, they are humans, families, seniors , veterans, children, everyday people like you and I.

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