Ted C Wills Community Center is one of the three warming centers in Fresno that will be open through March 8, 2023 from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m., Credit: Cassandra Garibay

This December, Juan Castro has been checking his phone several times every day to see how cold it could get at night.

If he has no other option, Castro resorts to sleeping on a sidewalk or at a park. But if forecast temperatures get below 35 degrees, he can go to one of four warming centers in Fresno, which the city provides for people who need shelter and warmth at night.

Castro, who has been homeless since 2020, said he loves the new initiative, which started this year. He has been to the Ted C. Wills Community Center five times this month to sleep at night. But on nights when it doesn’t get below 35 degrees, it can still feel really cold, Castro said.

“I just wish they opened it at 40 degrees, because it’s so cold out there,” Castro told Fresnoland.

While Fresno has opened its community centers in the past during extremely hot or cold weather conditions, the Fresno City Council established a formal policy to do so this past September. That includes the Ted C. Wills, Maxie L. Parks, Mosqueda, and Pinedale community centers. 

However, unhoused community members and homelessness activists say the resource is not communicated well with the public and can be inconsistent, if tied to exact temperatures.

City Councilmember Miguel Arias, who was a co-sponsor of the resolution that passed in September, said that city officials have gotten phone calls and emails from homelessness activists notifying them of concerns with warming centers being open one night, only for them to be closed the following night if temperatures aren’t under 35 degrees.

“One of the things that we must acknowledge is that we don’t always get it right,” Arias told Fresnoland. “I think we got it right when it came to the cooling centers, but we didn’t get it right when it came to their warming centers.”

Arias said officials chose to open warming centers when temperatures get below 35 degrees based on historical trends, but with dense fog and rain in Fresno and other parts of the central San Joaquin Valley, it can feel a lot colder.

After homelessness activists emailed and called city officials, they called a special meeting Thursday to approve a proposal to keep the Maxie L. Parks and Ted C. Wills community centers open for the next month, regardless of whether it gets lower than 35 degrees.

While the City of Fresno announced late Wednesday that warming centers will be open until the end of January, the city needs a Thursday council vote to approve setting aside money in the budget toward keeping them open that long. The vote would also formally bind the city to do so.

Arias said he anticipates it would cost about $50,000 to keep the two centers open for the next month — accounting for on-site security, staffing, electricity, beds, blankets and water. He said that’s a nominal cost, especially when it means providing warmth and life-saving shelter for unhoused people during an unusually colder winter.

“I’m happy because they now realize and know how important it is to have warming centers open,” said Dez Martinez, a local housing and homelessness activist who — since 2015 — has been calling on city officials to regularly open warming centers in the wintertime.

On Tuesday, the warming centers were originally not going to be opened, since forecasted temperatures weren’t below 35 degrees.

In the late afternoon, she said she noticed the National Weather Service forecast shifted to show that temperatures could be as low as 33 degrees that night. She immediately called Arias and emailed City Manager Georgeanne White, asking them to open the warming centers.

City officials did just that.

“It’s emotional for me and I only cry out of happiness because it took so long and so many battles and so many people I lost just to get one simple thing,” Martinez said.

Martinez, along with other homelessness advocates, have been driving unhoused community members to the warming centers the nights they’ve been open. They’ve also been providing them food in the morning and at night.  

For Daniel Dominguez, who has been homeless for two years, the warming centers have changed everything for him, he said.

Like Castro, he has been going to the Ted C. Wills Community Center this month when its doors are open. Besides getting shelter from the cold — and the rain some nights — he said unhoused people feel a sense of safety at the warming center.

A big factor is how respectful and helpful staff and volunteers are — handing out blankets and water, he said.

“They’re focused and they’re aware of what’s going on,” said Dominguez, who is 51. “They check on us. They want to make sure we’re OK.”

Dominguez said he learned about the warming centers from Martinez. Castro said he learned about it from a flyer he saw at a library in Fresno, adding that city officials should do more to notify unhoused people about the warming centers.

“What about the people who don’t know about this — or they don’t have a Facebook page or they don’t have a phone?” Castro said.

Both Dominguez and Castro think warming centers should be open in the wintertime, regardless of how low temperatures drop. They’d also like to see city officials include unhoused people in important discussions before making policy decisions that impact them.  

“Put yourself in our shoes. Go out to your backyard in jackets, shoes, double socks — everything,” Castro said. “Go outside for an hour at one o-clock in the morning. Let’s see if you can stay warm.”

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Omar Shaikh Rashad is the government accountability reporter for Fresnoland.