On a below-freezing December night, Ricky Smith found himself outside in Arcata’s cold weather with nowhere to go. His only option was to find warmth in Arcata House Partnership, or AHP’s emergency weather shelter. Smith has a Yosemite Sam mustache layered atop a scruffy beard and can be spotted around town with a guitar strapped around his shoulder. He is 60 years old and has been homeless the last two years.
“I was a local contractor and my house was foreclosed,” Smith said. “I lived in the same house for 25 years in McKinleyville but I took out one of those crazy loans.”
Smith said he usually doesn’t use the emergency shelter, but that particular night was unbearable and he couldn’t see himself surviving the frost. Although the volunteers were friendly Smith said he would take his chances on the street next time. It isn’t uncommon for homeless people to choose the street rather than a shelter.
David Pirtle, member of the Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau, National Coalition for the Homeless, told NPR reporter Ari Shapiro, “My fear of the unknown, of what might be waiting for me at that shelter, was worse than my fear of the known risk, you know, of staying out on the street.” Pirtle said that the negative actions talked about of certain shelters can outweigh the shelters that are safe.
“The weather was below freezing when I used the emergency shelter but I prefer to sleep outside no matter how cold it is,” Smith said. “It isn’t worth the hassle to get loaned bedding.”
Smith isn’t alone in his experience. According to AHP there are 1300 homeless people in Humboldt County, or roughly 1 percent of the population. Darlene Spoor is the executive director for AHP and said the emergency weather shelter is 100 percent volunteer ran and relies solely on donations from the community.
“We can only do this with the generosity of our community,” Spoor said. “We do partner with the county, they are a great help with us and with people with mental health concerns.”
Spoor said the emergency weather shelter is contingent on the National Weather Service’s extreme weather warning, which is around 34-33 degrees and below. Spoor said they can sleep up to 18 people including families. She works with local churches in Arcata that act as temporary housing for the homeless during nights with emergency weather warnings. When she is alerted by email they open their call building, the Annex, and offer dry clothes and food. After intake they can shower and receive bedding.
“They get dinner and then we transport them to where they will sleep,” Spoor said. “We have staff that stays at the location the entire time then in the morning we bus them back so they can get breakfast and go on their way.”
Spoor said although their regular shelter is full this year they haven’t filled up their emergency weather shelter, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for the beds. They are in need of more sleeping bags, mats and large pans of food that can be frozen and feed 20. She said the main challenge is getting the information out into the community when the emergency weather shelter is open because it’s unpredictable.
“What people can do is check our Facebook page, we post signs, we tell the hospital, 211 and the police,” Spoor said. “One of the misconceptions is people have to be clean and sober, which isn’t true, they just have to have a good behavior”
The largest homeless population resides in Eureka where the Eureka Rescue Mission can house 46 women and children and around 73 men safely. Brian Hall Sr. is the executive director for the Eureka Rescue Mission and said during the winter season they act as if everyday is an extreme weather alert. Because the men’s shelter is under renovation they are sleeping in the small cafeteria, the size of half a basketball court. Hall said this doesn’t affect the amount of space they hold for those who need shelter and haven’t yet had to turn anyone away.
“During the winter season we lower the bar at this time,” Hall said. “If we smell a little bit of booze we let it slide, but if their sloshy drunk we can’t take them in.”
The Eureka Rescue Mission serviced over 100 people a night last. Hall said 160 or so was their maximum and if they’re completely full they call St. Vincent on 3rd St. in Eureka which can house 20 cots. Hall said this year is low in comparison but that could easily change. When the weather is rainy their outside area is covered with tarps and they can run a heater to accommodate an additional 15-20 men.
“There has been an increase of men going from homeless to having an apartment,” Hall said. “According to some there is a need for more homeless shelters, my take is there more need in our community for places for people to go who are active in their addiction, or who have dogs. We don’t allow dogs and if I was homeless i would have a dog.”
For more information on the emergency weather shelter you can contact Arcata House Partnership at (707) 633 6236 or the Eureka Rescue Mission at (707) 445-3787.