Modesto CA homeless seek shelter during winter cold, rain

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The warming center at The Modesto Gospel Mission welcomes new clients during the severe winter storm on January 28, 2020.

This week’s winter storm brought more than 3 inches of rain and near gale-force winds, washing away many homeless encampments and leaving the occupants exposed to brutal conditions.

Some people took advantage of a warming center at the Modesto Gospel Mission.

“We are open all day and all night for anyone to come in and get out of the weather,” said Zack Gentry, director of programs at the mission.

Gentry said that at 8 a.m. Thursday morning, the warming center had 35 new people who were not regular daily visitors, but the center has the capacity for at least 100 more, even with following COVID-19 precautions.

The Mission opens their warming center when temperatures drop to 40 degrees, it’s raining or otherwise unsafe for people to be out in the elements, such as sweltering heat in the summer.

“Individuals have been coming in with their belongs absolutely soaking wet,” said Gentry. “We immediately get them into dry clothes and clean and dry their belongings as soon as we can.”

But not all homeless people are willing to stay at a shelter despite the bad weather.

A 62-year-old disabled Modesto woman, who has lived in her car with her 28-year-old son for nearly two years, said they would rather fend for themselves on the streets.

The woman, who asked that her name not be used, said she is afraid of contracting COVID-19 at shelter and that she just would not feel safe.

“I don’t want to risk putting my heart through the coronavirus stuff,” she said Thursday. “And the other thing is they would separate us. I don’t know how I’d live without him (her son). That’s how I feel. I don’t want to be alone, and that’s how I feel.”

Mother and son live in her 1992 Mercury Topaz. She said they sleep in parks during the day when they are open. The mother sleeps in the car, and her son sleeps nearby in a sleeping bag. She said sleeping in the car is too confining for him.

The woman said for the last couple of days as the rain and wind pounded Modesto her sister-in-law has let her son stay with her in her home. But the woman said that is risky because her sister-in-law is on Section 8 and is not supposed to have guests. The woman has slept in her car, parked in front of her sister-in-law’s home.

“For the most part, I’m OK,” the woman said. “Like I said, it does get cold, and it does get lonely, but I’m surviving it.”

The woman said she’d rather stay in her car than use a warming center. She said she is independent and her ultimate goal is to save enough to rent her own place for her and her son. “It’s been tough,” she said, “but I’m hoping one day they will open up housing for homeless people, make it affordable.”

Visitors to the Gospel Mission’s warming center may stay in the dining area during the daytime, have lunch or a warm drink, and they are also welcome to stay overnight. The new visitors are separated from the regular daily clients to help minimize exposure to COVID-19.

Gentry said the mission also has provisions for the clients’ pets, such as crates, so they can also stay at the warming center.

“Worrying about their animals is one reason some people don’t come in, so we’re trying to take care of them, too,” he said. “We try to offer whatever (people) need to be safe inside.”

Stanislaus County Office of Emergency Services has a protocol for opening warming centers in the event of extreme weather, but did not open the county centers for this week’s storm, according to Raj Singh, spokesperson for OES.

“We haven’t met any of the criteria.”

Singh said the criteria for opening the warming centers are primarily related to the weather posing a threat to human or animal lives. For example, they would open if the National Weather Service issues a freeze watch or warning for three consecutive days.

Without a weather alert, warming centers can also be opened if any of the following occur due to cold/freeze conditions:

  • Abnormal human medical emergencies or fatalities, or
  • Abnormal young animal mortality, or
  • Excessive damage to trees or crops, or
  • Stage 3 electrical emergencies are declared or extended power outages are expected during cold/freeze conditions.

In contrast to Sacramento County, which requires temperatures at or below 32 degrees, Stanislaus County OES does not have a mandated low temperature to open local centers

Two homeless people died in Sacramento during the storm, though the causes of death haven’t been reported. Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg had called for the opening of warming centers on Tuesday, because of harsh weather though the temperature was not low enough. On Wednesday after the two deaths, the Sacramento City Council, breaking with the county, declared an extreme weather emergency, which allowed opening of the warming centers.

Protecting health during winter storms

Extreme cold weather, as well as down-pouring rain or chilling winds, can threaten the health and safety of people and animals due to freezing, flooding, windblown debris and falling trees.

Singh said the county is providing weather updates and sand bags to residents of Del Puerto Canyon, in the SLC Lightning Complex burn scar, because of the risk for flooding and mudslides. Information can be found at http://www.stanaware.com/

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has emphasized the importance for providing housing for all homeless individuals during COVID-19 and the urgency is increased with the added dangers of severe winter weather. Homeless individuals are encouraged to seek shelter indoors.

The CDC recommends that everyone stay informed about the weather forecast, and get prepared for winter storms before they hit.

Gentry said the mission is always in need of donations, but currently they especially need warm clothes, coats, socks, mittens, food, and pet crates and supplies. For more information, visit https://modestogospelmission.org/ or call 209-529-8259.

In Stanislaus County, to locate a warming center or other needed resources, dial 211 for assistance 24 hours a day.

This story was produced with financial support from The Stanislaus County Office of Education and the Stanislaus Community Foundation, along with the GroundTruth Project’s Report for America initiative. The Modesto Bee maintains full editorial control of this work.

To help fund The Bee’s children’s health and economic development reporters with Report for America, go to bitly.com/ModbeeRFA

Profile Image of ChrisAnna Mink

ChrisAnna Mink is pediatrician and health reporter for The Modesto Bee. She covers children’s health in Stanislaus County and the Central Valley. Her position is funded through the financial support from The Stanislaus County Office of Education and the Stanislaus Community Foundation, along with The GroundTruth Project’s Report for America initiative. The Modesto Bee maintains full editorial control of her work.

Profile Image of Kevin Valine

Kevin Valine covers local government, homelessness and general assignment for The Modesto Bee. He is a graduate of San Jose State University.