Opinion: Extreme Heat Presents Real Threat To Those Living Without Shelter. Shasta County, and Redding, Should Help, Not Harm

Local community group, Shasta County Mutual Aid, describes how excessive heat and lack of accessible shelter and cooling are impacting community members. They fear that the city’s newly planned “sweeps” of the unhoused living within the Nur Pon Open Space will exacerbate the current crisis and worsen the danger to life and health.
A sign at the entrance to Nur Pon Open Space welcomes community members.

Editor’s Note: This article was submitted by Shasta Mutual Aid which describes itself as a group of dedicated volunteers working out of principles of solidarity, community, and reciprocal support. They believe everyone has something to share, just as everyone has something they need and that communities are strongest when they practice mutual care. Their work moves within the understanding that current social services are not enough. When institutions cannot help, or even worse when they cause harm, community members can take action right now to help meet each other’s basic needs, while also calling for institutions to step up and better serve their communities.

A subset of our community is fighting to survive during the summer months in Shasta County. They include anyone without air-conditioning, both our unhoused and housed neighbors, who need access, without barriers, to ways to cool down. 

On Saturday, Shasta Mutual Aid volunteers spoke with unhoused Redding residents about the impact of the current heat waves. Here are some of the responses we received:

“The other day I passed out, hit my head on the ground.”

“Someone called an ambulance, and I went to the hospital with heat stroke. They gave me some of those fluids … they sent me back out on the street, [I feel] like I am going to die.” 

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“I’m ok if I can get in the shade. But people are suffering, even young people. It’s hard.”

“We are always looking for shade and water.”

“It is so stressful.”

“It’s too much. People stop being able to see anything on the horizon.”

Living outside during this heat wave is oppressive and dangerous. Without appropriate supports, people are suffering and many are receiving inadequate medical care in response. On top of the existing challenges, the City is about to worsen the problem by removing potentially hundreds of unhoused residents from their current locations with no legitimate options for relocation.

Impending city sweeps of encampments are planned this month after the Redding City Council voted on August 2nd to instate and enforce park hours for Nur Pon, a publicly-owned recreation area under and near the Cypress bridge that is currently home to many unhoused Redding residents. Establishing the park hours, City Manager Barry Tippin said during comments at the July 19 City Council meeting, was an action intended to target the removal of unhoused residents from Nur Pon. Their current shelters there, by the Sacramento River, allow access to cooler air and water help them survive. The forced displacement could prove deadly for those already fighting to live through the summer temperatures.

While heat-related illness and deaths are generally preventable, heat causes more reported deaths per year on average in the United States than any other weather hazard, according to the California Office of Health Hazard Assessment. Armed with this knowledge, it is unacceptable that Shasta County does not provide more access and transportation to county cooling centers on days when the temperature is so high that the National Weather Service has deemed it hazardous to health. Current cooling center options, which include the Redding Library,  Mt. Shasta Mall, and the Good News Rescue Mission, are inaccessible to many people who would have to travel to reach them, or to leave them and find safe shelter when the cooling centers close at night. This includes many unsheltered residents without transportation who already walk miles every day to access other life sustaining services.

Our comunity’s failure to provide adequate access to cooling has only exacerbated the harm being caused by our long-term refusal to provide low-barrier shelter beds to the unhoused within Redding and Shasta County. Our only existing temporary shelter option, the Good News Rescue Mission, is, by its own admission, not a place that many people will choose to go, based in part on stay limits and restrictive policies.

And according to the City’s own estimates, even with the Rescue Mission,  Redding is about 50 beds short of having the needed capacity for unsheltered individuals within the City limits, a number that assumes that all of the unhoused within Redding can access current options. This is unlikely, according to data from the Shasta County 2021 Point in Time (PIT) Count, which estimates that 30% of Shasta County’s unsheltered residents have a physical disability and over 30% have a mental illness or a chronic illness, either of which may complicate their ability to access shelter and cooling.

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The PIT count is completed by the county every other year as a condition by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD),  for County Continuums of Care to receive funding to provide services to unsheltered people. But the counts are  known to indicate lower numbers of unhoused than there really are, which contributes to the resulting funding being inadequate to match the need, creating a concealed resource vacuum. Numbers from that count are being used by the city to indicate that our shortage of shelter beds is relatively small (around 50) despite the large obvious unmet needs of our city’s unsheltered.

Nur Pon, formerly known as Henderson Open Space, which the city hopes to sweep “clean,”  has been home to many unhoused Redding residents for years. These residents have had to work out deals with local businesses for access to dumpsters because there is no other way for them to dispose of their trash. Residents have also been subjected to violent harassment, and receive inconsistent assistance from the City that is provided whenever a “clean up” is planned. Every time a sweep happens people have to start from scratch acquiring basic supplies and necessities.  

In October of 2021 the city conducted enforcement sweeps of Nur Pon in preparation for the opening of a new boat launch that has since been delayed. During those sweeps, the assistance provided to unhoused residents of the recreation area included a pamphlet with information about the Good News Rescue Mission and bulldozers to destroy any belongings people hadn’t been able to move.

Lieutenant Danny Smetak of the Redding Police Department told KRCR within the last few weeks that by the end of August the City hopes to have Nur Pon Open Space “cleaned up” and “open to the public,” comments made in response to community outcry over encampments around the area because those encampments are allegedly impacting the fly-fishing industry on the Sacramento River. What the KRCR  article doesn’t mention is that much of that land is owned by Dignity Health who, after years of neglect and sporadic no-camping or trespassing law enforcement, is planning on building another building near that location starting in the summer of 2023. The timing, as is often the case when it comes to policing the unhoused, is convenient for everyone other than the unsheltered, who are living by the river, trying to survive deadly heat with little consistent assistance. 

Forcing residents to collect their belongings and somehow find another place to stay in over 100 degree heat is cruel and unnecessary. It may also violate Martin v. Boise, a federal appeals court ruling that cities and counties cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances if they cannot provide alternative shelter options. The combination of inadequate existing shelter options and the City’s open acknowledgement of of the need for more beds to meet the legal standard needed to displace the unsheltered may make this not only a cruel decision, but an illegal one. 

This article is part of our Community Voices series, which illuminate lived experiences, identities, issues or perspectives that are often misunderstood. Community Voices is supported by a grant from the North State Equity Fund. Want to share your thoughts and opinions with our readers? You can submit your writing here.

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