Luz Morales Lopez (center-right), a longtime volunteer for the city, checks people in at the entrance to the Library Galleria warming center. Photo by Alex DeNuzzo (@awesomenuzzo on Instagram).

Weather reports warned of the storm days in advance. 

But as City Hall met late Tuesday night on the 26th of January, hours before the worst storm of the season, the warming center next door at the Library Galleria remained closed. 

County guidelines in case of weather emergencies only suggest opening warming centers if more than three days of below-33-degree temperatures are predicted. But back in December of 2020, the city rejected those guidelines, getting rid of the three-consecutive-day requirement to open the downtown Galleria warming center when the temperature dropped below 33. 

Given that precedent, when temperatures dropped below 33 degrees on Monday night, the day before the storm, city officials opened the Galleria center. Tuesday night was only expected to drop to 42 degrees, however, so despite the clear danger posed by rain and raging winds, city officials declined to open shelters. 

Discussion of the policy surrounding warming centers was absent at the Tuesday-night meeting until four hours in, when Mayor Steinberg received an email from Joe Smith, the director of advocacy at Loaves and Fishes. 

Upon learning from Smith that entire homeless encampments were being destroyed by the storm, Steinberg burst into an impromptu speech, railing against the county guidelines. “People are going to die tonight… We can’t get a goddamn warming center open more than one night because the county has rules? I’m sick of this!” 

“People are going to die tonight.” 

Four homeless people died Tuesday night and Wednesday morning in the aftermath of the storm. Tents were smashed, mobile homes started leaking, entire encampments blew away in the wind. Even as the full scope of the damage was still being realized, reactions from the community came strong. 

At an emergency meeting of the City Council on Wednesday afternoon, Councilmember Katie Valenzuela, who represents downtown and midtown, began her comments by painfully acknowledging one of her constituents had died. “It’s hard to think and hear about a woman by herself alone in a tent last night,” she said. Valenzuela has been vocal since her election campaign on the need to house the homeless, even advocating to use Sleep Train Arena as a massive shelter, a proposal her opponent labeled ‘foolish’. The Arena is now being used to house overflow hospital patients in case of a COVID-19 outbreak. 

At the Wednesday meeting, the city council declared a local weather emergency, bypassing the guidelines of the county to open the Library Galleria warming center that night, “and for the foreseeable future.” They also authorized the City Manager to appropriate 1 million dollars of general funds to expand shelter options for the homeless, a number which may be refined later. 

In addition to the Library warming center, the city has now opened “Safe Parking” sites in downtown city parking garages along with a second warming center in Southside Park. 

Guidelines or Directives?

An investigative piece published after-the-fact by The Sacramento Bee shows a more complete look at the circumstances leading up to the city’s failure during the storm. It revealed that, despite the efforts of four Councilmembers and Mayor Steinberg, it was City Manager Howard Chan who declined to open any warming centers across the city. 

According to the Bee, he based his decision on the county guidelines and public health orders, saying he might do so again if given the chance to go back. “If I had perfect vision, that way, 20/20 and knew that there was not going to be any outbreaks, and that I was not going to put anybody in harm’s way, our guests or employees, the answer is, of course, I would have activated [the center],” he said in an interview with the Bee. 

Responding to the controversy, the county put out a press release on Friday clarifying that their guidelines were just that—guidelines. According to the press release, “This criteria is a guide to trigger an emergency response on a countywide scale but does not limit cities within the county from opening a warming center under any conditions they see fit.” 

This revelation galvanized progressive groups. Councilmember Valenzuela wrote on Twitter, “If we weren’t held back by the County then what took us so long to act? Why were we told we couldn’t change the inhumane standards only to find a way to do so AFTER the storm?” The Sacramento Homeless Union called for Mayor Steinberg to resign, giving him until Wednesday afternoon before they would start a recall effort.

The Chair of the Measure U Advisory Committee, Flo Cofer, tweeted in support of the effort to recall Steinberg, saying, “No [Measure U] money has been spent on homelessness in *either* budget since MU was passed.” This has been a sticking point between activists and the City, which promised to use Measure U funds to help the homeless. Instead, the City Council used the money to make up for a budgetary deficit caused by COVID-19.

In addition to supporting the recall effort, Cofer tweeted Sunday, “[Bee reporter Theresa Clift] made the case today to: #FireHowardChan.” This proved remarkably prescient, as the very next day the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness—long considered to be much more moderate than the Sac Homeless Union—called for Chan to be removed as City Manager. In an email they wrote to members of the City Council, they stated, “[Howard Chan] failed our unhoused neighbors. He failed you and our community. He should have the decency to resign, and if he does not, you need to fire him immediately.” 

Influential member of the Sacramento Bee Editorial Board, Marcos Breton, wrote a column for the Bee criticizing this reaction from progressive leaders. He claimed that progressives cannot argue for getting rid of Steinberg or Chan when they rallied against a proposal to give the mayor executive power just months before. The issue on the ballot, Measure A, would have allowed the mayor to assume power over the administrative functions of the city, including, according to Breton, the ability to open warming centers. Measure A was soundly defeated in November, 2020, after progressive groups and the Sacramento Fire Union organized against it.

As of Tuesday evening, the outcome of these various efforts seems murky. Mayor Steinberg enjoys a high level of popularity in the Sacramento region, and any effort to remove him as mayor seems likely to fail. To remove Chan from his role as City Manager would require 2/3rds of the City Council to agree—six affirmative votes. This also seems unlikely, with two council members already speaking out against the idea.