Activist’s Warming Center Program sees success after year of efforts
By his own admission, Brent Adams’ methods of activism haven’t always paid off.
Known as one of Santa Cruz’s more outspoken advocates for the homeless, Adams also has a reputation for publicly denouncing community members and leaders, whether in city council meetings or in online forums. Perhaps because of Adams’ finger-wagging methods, local officials and organizations have often shown reluctance to associate themselves with him—a phenomenon he’s calling the “Brent Factor.”
“I came from the shaming school of activism, and you’ll still find me stuck in that from time to time,” says Adams. “I stand by everything that I’ve done, and a lot of that may be controversial for some people, but this project is meant to be the opposite of controversial.”
This latest project is the Santa Cruz Warming Center Program. A warming center is a temporary shelter that opens when the temperature outside drops to dangerous levels, or when a combination of temperature, precipitation, and high winds make sleeping outside a health issue—especially for the unhoused population that are older, or may be suffering from ailments that could be exacerbated by freezing temperatures. The project had its first successful run at a church in downtown Santa Cruz just before the New Year.
With the program, Adams says he is trying to step away from the habit of scolding government leaders and service organizations. He instead wants to work toward cooperation, so that he can help those experiencing homelessness find a warm refuge on Santa Cruz’s coldest nights.
“So many people have different ideas about the tangential aspects around homelessness, and who’s responsible, but this project can bring the opposing sides together, and that’s really what we need right now in Santa Cruz,” says Adams. “That’s what the Warming Center Program is hoping to achieve—that it’s a bridge between the communities: the housed and the people who are homeless.”
When temperatures dropped below freezing on Dec. 30 and 31, Adams and a group of volunteers helped to give shelter to about 60 homeless individuals. Dec. 30 was the first night the program operated, after more than a year of preparation.
In December 2013, a 10-day cold snap struck the Bay Area, and four homeless people died in Santa Clara County as a result. Adams and a group of concerned citizens organized to find a way to shelter homeless individuals on cold nights to prevent similar incidents from occurring locally.
The Santa Cruz County 2013 Report on Homeless Deaths states that 43 percent of homeless deaths occurred either outside or in a parked vehicle, and on any given night in the county, there are thousands of people sleeping outside.
According to the point-in-time homeless count conducted by Watsonville-based Applied Survey Research, in January 2013, the homeless population in Santa Cruz County increased from 2,771 individuals in 2011 to 3,536 in 2013.
The Homeless Services Center in Santa Cruz provides hundreds of beds to homeless individuals year-round, and opens up the National Guard Armory from Nov. 15 to April 15 to provide additional beds in the winter. There are also shelters provided by the Salvation Army, and in Watsonville at the Pajaro Valley Shelter, but that still leaves more than an estimated 80 percent of the local homeless population out in the cold on frigid winter nights.
Since last winter, Adams and volunteers have composed a protocol of actions to follow based on the California Office of Emergency Services’ (OES) contingency plan for cold-weather emergencies. When the National Weather Survey forecasts overnight temperatures of 32 degrees Fahrenheit or below, individuals can call 211 to find out where the temporary shelter will be for the night. Adams and volunteers also use a passenger van to scour the streets for anyone looking for a warm night’s rest.
But even with a specific protocol in place, Adams and volunteers have faced difficulty when trying to find spaces to temporarily shelter the homeless.
After reaching out to dozens of organizations, Calvary Episcopal Church on Center and Lincoln streets in Santa Cruz stepped up to host the launch of the Warming Center Program, just before the New Year.
“I was amazed,” says Nancy Krusoe, a retired UCSC writing professor, and volunteer for the Warming Center Program. “There were no behavioral issues, and nothing extraordinary happened. The lights went out and everyone went to sleep.”
The first nights of the program went off without a hitch, but Adams and his volunteers discovered some logistical challenges they didn’t foresee going in. Citizens of Santa Cruz provided the program with more than a hundred blankets, but those warm coverings have to be washed after each use, which can be a daunting task at a coin-operated laundromat.
“We didn’t realize how expensive laundry would be, and we’re hoping that the community will help with that expense in the future,” says Krusoe.
Getting community buy-in is an important upcoming step for the program. It remains to be seen how easily that will come, or whether the so-called “Brent factor” will be an issue, but Adams doesn’t think it will be. “The program is apolitical, and only offered as a solution to the problem,” says Adams. “It is, at its heart, pure compassion in action.”
The program has already gotten support from Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane.
“I am quite familiar with the effort, and made a donation to support it. I also met recently with the lead organizers to offer my thoughts on funding and building support for this kind of program,” says Lane. “Generally, it is a very worthwhile effort. I think a well-organized, broad-based project could garner city support. I think Brent has not been as successful as I had hoped in bridging some divides in the community and building stronger alliances. This has been an impediment to progress in the broader community.”
The rewards of volunteering for the program far outweigh the logistical challenges associated with the centers, according to Krusoe. “It feels good to offer real help to those that need it,” she says.
Adams and Warming Center volunteers hope to find additional spaces to shelter the homeless across the county as the winter continues, but they have yet to find any other willing parties.
“My worry is that we are hamstrung because we don’t have locations, and people will be stuck freezing outside of a locked building,” says Adams.
PHOTO: Brent Adams’ model to give transients shelter on Santa Cruz’s coldest nights sprung into action when temperatures dipped to below freezing just before the New Year. KEANA PARKER