Editorial: Shelter from extreme weather is a human right

County, city must do more to protect our unsheltered community it times of extreme weather.|

Early last Friday morning, the Valley was strangely quiet. There were only a handful of people out walking dogs or enjoying the morning air. The coffee shops that usually hum with people had but a patron or two.

The glittering layer of frost that coated the region kept people indoors, cozy and protected from the cold snap. But as the thermometer dropped to a chilly 29 degrees that night, only a handful of Sonoma’s homeless population were comfortably tucked into the emergency shelter at the Sonoma Valley Veterans Memorial Building.

The reason the large shelter had such a low turnout might have something to do with the timing. Despite reports for days that freezing temps were on the way, the shelter at the Veterans Building was not announced to the public until 7:18 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 1, when it was dark and many in the homeless community were already hunkered down for the coldest night of the year.

Homeless services providers only learned of the shelter around 5:15 p.m., and while Sonoma Overnight Support and Homeless Action Sonoma worked quickly to get the word out to their clients, with such little notice, only a few made it to the shelter. Come morning, those who did seek refuge were asked to leave by 9 a.m., when it was still 35 degrees.

When asked why the warming shelter was announced so late, Sonoma County Public Information Officer Carly Cabrera said that there was another event occupying the building until 6:30 p.m.

But questions remain: If the city asked for the shelter days in advance, why wasn’t it announced so people could plan?

It’s not the first time we’ve seen a slow government response on emergency shelters. In early September, a heatwave cooked the Valley, sending temperatures to 110 degrees. Despite that, neither the city nor county opened a cooling center. Recently terminated interim City Manager Sue Casey said at the time it was because there was no health-related emergency, pointing to Sonoma’s status of “moderate heat risk,” according to state metrics.

Luckily, SOS heeded common sense and turned the Grange into a cooling center, complete with ice water and Popsicles. More than 50 people showed up to escape the blistering heat, demonstrating the need for such an emergency shelter.

When it comes to emergency shelters, the county covers the unincorporated areas of the Valley, while it’s the city’s job within city limits. Each seems to wait for the other to act. As King aptly noted, “The communication between the city and county needs to be better.”

With climate change, these extreme weather days will only get worse. It is beyond time for the city and county to make a plan of action to protect our most vulnerable when the weather becomes hostile.

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