Night at the homeless shelter

Sacramento Steps Forward's Winter Sanctuary program is a less expensive answer to its predecessor at Cal Expo. But is it enough?

by Dave Kempa
December 12, 2012
News & Review

One-hundred homeless men and women eat dinner by candlelight in an echoing, cavernous hall. They can hardly see one another across their foldout dining tables, but the mood is light as they talk and look forward to a night of respite from the week’s cold rain.

Sure, the power has gone out. But this recent Friday evening, these men and women will sleep soundly and with full bellies on a floor at the Capital Christian Center on Micron Avenue.

Two weeks after its launch, Sacramento Steps Forward’s Winter Sanctuary program is already running at full bore, with more homeless Sacramentans seeking shelter than the initiative can reasonably provide.

“The maximum we can handle is 100 [people],” said Christie Holderegger of Volunteers of America. “We reached that the first week we were open.”

Due to the combined efforts of Sacramento Steps Forward, Volunteers of America and the area’s faith community, Winter Sanctuary is now in its third year of housing and feeding homeless men and women.

From November 19 until the end of March, area churches and mosques take turns sheltering homeless adults ranging in age from 19 to 70-something for a night of food, interaction with church volunteers, games and, often, a movie.

“We’ll have up to 300 people come to intake,” said Abbie Hartsell, Volunteers of America’s Sacramento community-relations coordinator, adding that depending on weather conditions and the size of the facility, they can sometimes only take in up to 120 people.

Before Sacramento Steps Forward created the program, Sacramento County had been providing winter shelter at Cal Expo, with up to 154 men, women and children. But this proved unsustainable, costing the county around $700,000 each winter, and funding soon ran out.

Although Winter Sanctuary provides fewer beds than Cal Expo, Sacramento Steps Forward executive director Ben Burton notes that it has been successful both in costs (the entire program functions on $150,000 in donations) and in getting the community involved.

The program has also proven more peaceful than its predecessor, with participants held to strict standards regarding violence, smoking and substance abuse while in the shelter.

“The old situation, Cal Expo, they had no guidance,” said participant Kenneth Whitaker. “It was just putting problems from the street into one place.” Whitaker, 61, has been making use of the Winter Sanctuary program since its inception two years ago.

While it may be much more streamlined and community-oriented than its predecessor, the current Winter Sanctuary seems to suffer almost solely on capacity: There are fewer spaces than there are people who need shelter.

“We would absolutely like to meet the need,” said Holderegger. “And it’s possible, if we had more resources.”

But this would mean a larger staff. And more churches. More vans for transporting homeless people to the shelters, or perhaps a bus. More staff. More sleeping bags. And in the end, more funding.

Donations, however, do not come easily, and in the past, the program was unable to start on time due to funding issues.

So, for now, much like the men and women eating dinner by candlelight in that echoing activity center, they will make do with what they have.