A homeless man died Wednesday night outside Sacramento City Hall, delivering a harsh reminder of street perils to the doorstep of city leaders as they continue searching for ways to help the transient population in a stormy winter.
About 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, another camper alerted security that a 50-year-old man sheltered at the back of City Hall was unresponsive. Homeless people often seek cover under the building’s overhangs despite a controversial city ordinance banning public camping.
The Sacramento County Coroner’s Office has not identified the man, but homeless people in the area knew him as Michael Nunez, according to homeless rights activist James Lee Clark.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg was informed of the death Thursday and said that addressing homelessness is a “moral issue.”
He said the city is already working on an inventory of empty or convertible buildings throughout Sacramento, such as closed schools, that could serve as temporary shelters. He is asking council members to help with that effort and hopes to open more facilities in coming weeks.
At a Thursday news conference, county Supervisor Phil Serna, Steinberg and Sacramento Councilman Jeff Harris announced a new shelter at the Stanford Settlement Neighborhood Center in North Sacramento near the American River. That facility served 24 people Wednesday night.
“I have been and continue to be hellbent on making this situation much better,” Steinberg said. “We are not going to wait. ... We’re going to find and attempt to open as many places of shelter as we can as quickly as possible.”
The death at City Hall comes less than two weeks before the city and county plan to hold a joint meeting to better coordinate on homelessness. While the city administers some homeless services, the county is responsible for the bulk of the work and administers federal and state funding.
“It’s completely unacceptable,” Serna said about homeless people living without shelter this winter. “We’re going to do things different and we’re really going to live up to the responsibility that our constituents expect. And that is to make sure that people have a place to stay warm, to be sheltered.”
Currently, the northern Sierra Nevada is on pace to have its wettest season in recorded history, and the plight of homeless people displaced by the rain is causing a “state of emergency,” said Sacramento Councilman Allen Warren. Last week, he proposed lifting the camping ordinance on a limited basis to allow homeless people in his Del Paso Heights-based district to camp on a parcel of land that he owns, where he envisions the city providing services and infrastructure such as restrooms.
Warren said he doesn’t want a permanent tent city but thinks temporary camping is necessary until more long-term solutions are available. He thinks that the city needs “real-time responses” to what he sees as a crisis that is hitting neighborhoods in his district especially hard. Other city leaders – most notably Steinberg – have not embraced Warren’s camping idea.
“I don’t want it to be political,” Warren said of his proposal. “It’s a real life-or-death situation. This is an emergency crisis and we need an emergency response.”
Homeless rights activist Bob Erlenbusch, who tracks the number of people who die on Sacramento streets, said on average that one homeless person dies each week. He’s recorded 705 deaths on the street in the last 14 years, and said men on average die at 50 years old and women at 49.
County Coroner Kim Gin said her office has counted 87 deaths of homeless people from Jan. 1 through Dec. 9 of last year, the most recent period for which numbers are available.
In the case of the man who died outside City Hall this week, firefighters arrived at the scene within five minutes but found him already dead, said city spokeswoman Linda Tucker. Police were not called, according to police spokeswoman Linda Matthew.
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Nunez fell, hit his head and went to a hospital the day before his death, according to Heather Kennedy, a friend who was with him the previous two days.
The Coroner’s Office has not yet determined a cause of death, but Gin said via email that an autopsy has been performed and the body had “no trauma at all.” Her office is still looking for the man’s family.
Camping at City Hall is a contentious issue. For more than a year, homeless rights activists have slept on its sidewalks, held protests inside chambers and had run-ins with police over the city’s anti-camping ordinance, which makes it illegal to sleep on city streets. They say the anti-camping rule makes homelessness a crime, and the confiscation of camping gear can be dangerous for those left to the elements.
“None of us have ever said that (lifting) the camping ordinance is a solution, but it would free up energy and time,” Clark said. He said the death of the homeless man was “symbolic of the fact that (politicians) are still not addressing the situation in a laudable fashion.”
Tanya Orcutt, 35, camped outside the main door of City Hall on Wednesday night on the opposite side of where Nunez died. Orcutt said that while the rain wasn’t terrible, the wind was fierce and the temperature was falling by the time she went to sleep around 6 p.m.
“My foot was like a rock when I woke up, it was so cold,” she said.
With rain resuming Thursday afternoon, she stood with a friend and a cart of belongings out front. Her lip was bruised – the result of a man kicking her a few nights previously while attempting to steal her sleeping bag a few blocks away, she said.
Still, Orcutt said of sleeping at City Hall, “I feel safe here.”
With rain forecast again Thursday night, Kennedy was among five people and a gray-and-white pit bull camping behind City Hall. One man rested on a tarp in the same spot where Nunez died.
Editor’s note (Jan. 20): The spelling of Michael Nunez’s last name has been corrected based on an interview with a relative after the story ran. The incorrect spelling was attributed to two friends.
Bee reporters Ed Fletcher and Phillip Reese contributed to this report.