Winter Worries

In Sonoma County we consider ourselves lucky to escape the snowy, downright freezing weather that many of our fellow Americans contend with over the winter months. But that’s also taking for granted a dry, warm place to call home that insulates us from the elements. While we may not experience subzero temperatures, cold, wet, and windy weather presents significant challenges for unsheltered individuals.

Wet feet may not dry out for weeks. Sleeping bags may fail to provide enough insulation against dropping nighttime temperatures. Needed sleep might be elusive when someone is shivering or walking through the night to stay warm. Combine that with the potential for hypothermia, pneumonia, depression, and frostbite and you quickly realize that it is no small victory to stay ‘healthy’ while homeless.

More than 3,000 individuals and families in Sonoma County are without shelter right now, facing a long, wet winter ahead. It’s not quite December and already, Sonoma County officials have activated the “Code Blue” winter weather advisory which triggers funding for additional shelter beds and warming stations.

A Cold Weather Response Line helps unsheltered people seek relief from extreme weather. Catholic Charities will manage the county’s Safe Parking program at various locations throughout Sonoma. Read more about their Family Support Center and homeless services here.

In the South County, the Committee on the Shelterless (COTS) will be able to welcome 30 Severe Weather Beds guests at a time in addition to their usual 100 emergency shelter residents.  “We take this opportunity seriously,” says Robin Phoenix, Director of Programs and Outreach for COTS’ Mary Isaak Center. “It’s not just about keeping people warm and safe. It’s our chance to help them imagine and reach for a different life.”

Last year, several chronically homeless people in COTS’ Severe Weather program took advantage of COTS’ support and programs to turn their lives around– gaining employment, putting away savings and finding housing.  This year, COTS is positioned to help even more people, says Phoenix. “We have a dedicated case manager just for the people coming in from the cold.  We can offer people a path out of homelessness.”

In Guerneville, the Winter Shelter operated by West County Community Services opens on December 1. The shelter will provide up to 50 adults shelter from the cold, dry floor mats and bedding and at least one meal a day (provided by volunteers). The emergency shelter will be open from 5:00 pm to 7:00 am each day at the Veterans Building.

Community volunteers have provided more than 100 sleeping bags and each warm evening meal.  Other volunteers will provide extra clothing and arrange for laundry services. Nonprofit partners like Sonoma West Medical Center, the Guerneville Health Center and St. Joseph Hospital are supporting other in-kind donations and medical services.

“One of the biggest barriers is finding a way to accommodate people’s pets.  We have some folks who will freeze to death before they’ll leave their animal.” That’s why, in addition to seeking donations of warm sleeping bags, COTS is hoping the community will donate pet cases.

If you would like to support a Sonoma County organizations working to shelter, feed, and support the health of our most vulnerable neighbors, please contact your Community Foundation philanthropic advisor.

Eileen Morris, Manager of Community Engagement at COTS and Kristin Nelson, Senior Philanthropic Advisor at Community Foundation Sonoma County contributed to this story.

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