Shelter from the storm: Santa Cruz’s Warming Center providing a basic, essential need during a cold winter
During the Dec. 13 storm, local advocate Brent Adams opened the Warming Center at Footbridge Services to help the unhoused during the inclement weather and beyond. Now he’s assessing how he can best prepare for the remainder of the winter months while also contemplating budgetary constraints.
As rainstorms and frigid temperatures descended upon Santa Cruz on Dec. 13, many among the area’s unhoused population were left searching for warm, dry shelter.
Days like those are why Brent Adams does what he does.
Adams, the founder and program director of the Warming Center Program, was keeping a close eye on the weather forecast as 10 inches of rain pushed some parts of the San Lorenzo River past minor flood level, putting the hundreds of people who live in tents in the area known as the benchlands at risk. If nothing else, Adams knew, the number of people in need of warmth and a place to dry out would be immense.
That week, Adams turned the limited-hours warming center into an overnight shelter service, offering a spartan version of shelter beds during the worst winter nights. He kept it open for four nights — nearly a quarter of the nights his budget can typically afford for the full Warming Center season, from Nov. 1 through March 31. Adams tries to budget 20 overnights over the course of that five-month period, aiming to use most of the center’s donated funds on supplies for the unhoused rather than for housing costs.
The center — located in a former office building at the end of Felker Street — has 300 floor mats that can be spread across the roughly 3,000 square-foot space, both inside three rooms and in the covered breezeway between the buildings. The space is reminiscent of an old-school office building, absent of any bells and whistles.
But as Adams has seen in the uptick of unhoused individuals searching for help, the mere option of a dry, warm, safe space is all that matters to many on these cold, wet winter nights.
As the new year arrived, Adams has continued to stay up late, making certain the city’s unhoused population has a warm, clean shelter when winter rainstorms and cold temperatures arrive. Adams’ addition adds nearly 50% more to the county’s stock: 617 beds, 375 of which are in the city of Santa Cruz.
Adams said he wishes he didn’t feel as though it was all on him and the Warming Center, that the city and county would take more action to either partner with his program or develop their own. He’s not certain what needs to happen, but he’s unwavering when it comes to the need he sees all around him.
“There needs to be a winter shelter program,” Adams said. “We’re taking responsibility so that people don’t get hypothermia out there.”
We’re taking responsibility so that people don’t get hypothermia out there.
How the Warming Center came about
Following his experience with the Occupy Santa Cruz movement around 2011, the activist in Adams wanted to create an organized homeless encampment, ultimately leading in 2013 to a pop-up warming center for those who needed it on cold nights.
Since 2019, Adams has operated the Warming Center Program — in tandem with the Footbridge Services Center and the Secret Garden Women’s Shelter — which is tucked away alongside the San Lorenzo River.
From 8 to 10 a.m. and 5 to 7 p.m. seven days a week, individuals can visit the space for hot coffee, conversation, charging their devices and storing their belongings. The site also offers laundry services every Tuesday evening — doing 60 to 80 loads of laundry weekly — as well as Sunday shower services.
“We’ve had 1,000 people using our programs in the last two years, and we never turn anyone away,” Adams said. “We’ll keep building out as long as people can use the services.”
Through the winter season, the Warming Center opens for overnight stays based on activation thresholds, opening when temperatures reach 38 degrees (as forecasted 48 hours prior) or during extreme rain events (forecast of 1 inch one day, 0.75 inch per two days, or 0.5 inch per three days). Adams acknowledged that, though the center was open four evenings during the Dec. 13 week of inclement weather, he should have kept it open for two additional nights.
Looking to the remainder of the winter season, Adams isn’t sure how he’ll be able to keep the center open enough nights to meet the existing needs.
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“That’s the difficulty of a warming center — a winter shelter that’s open every night, that’s what is most appropriate,” he said. “We’ve always been hoping that the county would take our warming center over. They’ve got the facilities and the funding. It should be done by them, not by us — but we’ll just continue to do it.”
The costs and where funding comes from
The center is largely a grassroots operation, with Adams being the only full-time employee, which often leads to restless nights and 80-hour work weeks to keep track of all that clients might need. He is assisted by three part-time employees and approximately 50 active volunteers from a list of 500, working three-hour shifts apiece.
Adams estimated that all of the services — the Warming Center, the Footbridge Services Center, the Secret Garden Women’s Shelter, and site operations — cost $150,000 annually to operate, without accounting for staff salaries. He said that Kaiser Permanente and angel investors have been incredibly generous, with between $20,000 to $30,000 in annual donations, but donations from regular folks make up the bulk of the organization’s budget, giving $20 bills or $200 checks.
“Our budget is so fractional compared to what has ever been spent … it’s mind-blowing to get this all done,” Adams said.
The warming center had previously received funding from the county, Adams said, with $15,000 released in quarterly increments for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 winter seasons. However, that funding was put on hold when, as Adams said, the county “decided to go in a different direction,” which led Adams to scramble for further funding assistance.
In addressing the change, county spokesman Jason Hoppin told Lookout that, while the Warming Center was previously funded as part of the Collective of Results and Evidence-based (CORE) Investments program, the county rescinded funding in 2019 and won’t comment further about why.
“The city and the county have made it difficult for us, in general, to move forward, even though they often offer us opportunities to work with them,” Adams said. “Officially, they said they refocused directions, and decided to move in a different direction.”
Yet according to Warming Center employees and volunteers like Mark Robbins and Katayun Salehi, having city or county funding would make a huge — and vital — impact for unhoused Santa Cruzans.
“Brent is doing everything he can to help reduce the impact of homelessness on the city,” Robbins said. “I don’t think there is anyone doing as much as he’s doing, with the limited resources they have. … Homelessness is going to change for the worse if programs like Brent’s can’t maintain themselves.”
Brent is doing everything he can to help reduce the impact of homelessness on the city. I don’t think there is anyone doing as much as he’s doing, with the limited resources they have. … Homelessness is going to change for the worse if programs like Brent’s can’t maintain themselves.
— Mark Robbins
Salehi noted that when she first began volunteering with the center, she was intrigued by the holistic nature of the programming, and feels that the Warming Center’s model showcases what the community can do to address homelessness on a grander scale.
“People deserve to be given opportunities where they can really rise to a certain occasion if you give them certain means,” she said. “Give them an opportunity to live with greater dignity and show them that people still care about them — not everybody will either infantilize or shame them.”
Where Santa Cruz fits into the equation
After he started his job with the city in early October, Santa Cruz Homelessness Response Manager Larry Imwalle first met Adams. Imwalle visited the Warming Center on Felker Street, and they discussed the program’s elements for about 90 minutes. The pair further talked about the “bigger picture” elements, in addition to what Adams currently provides.
I think, in our planning with the county, we’re trying to assess what organizations can play which roles, and what resources would be required to make that happen.
— Larry Imwalle
“It’s good knowing what services which organizations are able to provide to support the unhoused in our community,” Imwalle said. “I think, in our planning with the county, we’re trying to assess what organizations can play which roles, and what resources would be required to make that happen.”
Currently, however, Imwalle noted that the city is primarily focused on increasing shelter capacity, noting a contract with the Salvation Army for a 75-bed shelter at the National Guard Armory in DeLaveaga Park and the transitional camp at 1220 River St. Yet it’s partners like Adams who help to fill in the gaps.
“I think the storage service provided at Footbridge is invaluable,” Imwalle said. “I definitely think there’s a need to expand some of the things that they do there, whether it’s one organization or others. ... If [Adams] has additional resource needs or is interested in partnering, we can certainly have that conversation.”
The Warming Center’s future
This cold, wet winter is showcasing a critical ongoing need for the unhoused, and one that Adams hopes will prove the Warming Center’s value as a part of the ecosystem to the city. This season alone, the center has provided at least 400 wool blankets and hundreds of jackets and socks to the unhoused community, eating up a large portion of the program’s budget.
Adams noted that he hopes future conversations with city and county officials, such as Imwalle, could alleviate a lot of the stress he feels in “constantly raising money,” and make it “easier to operate” all of Footbridge’s services.
In looking forward to what more the center can do, Adams hopes to prove the Warming Center’s and Footbridge’s longevity through the impact — and show that these services are the things that unhoused folks need here and now.
“We do something very specific — we try to be seen for doing that good work,” he said, adding that all people living an unhoused existence deserve better, regardless of how they got there. “What we want to do is raise the floor of experience up to something more clean, safe and dignified for everybody.”