offer residents emergency warnings

Santa Clara County has launched a alert system specifically aimed at the vulnerable unsheltered homeless population, which would let those with a mobile device know when the weather is taking a potentially dangerous turn.

“Normally when we send out mass alerts, we tailor it to a neighborhood or region or wherever it is going to impact people,” said Patty Eaton of the county’s Office of Emergency Services. “This new function specifically alerts homeless individuals about shelter availability during excessive heat or cold or rain.”

The latest addition to Alert Santa Clara County, the new free service — activated by texting HOMELESS to 888-777 — automatically sends a text alert and instructions to a mobile device when it is activated. The county has had a similar system available to offer residents emergency warnings in the event of a fire, flood, criminal activity or other significant event that could require action or evacuation.

Stephanie Demos of HomeFirst, which partners with the county to visit encampments to tell people about threatening conditions and offer them food, water and services, said many homeless people do have inexpensive cell phones who could be reached with the service.

“This is one of those things that there will be people who see it for the lifeline that it is and use it,” she said, “and others — the more chronic homeless who may have substance abuse issues — who may not. But it’s a tremendously humane effort to reach out to anyone we can.”

Eaton said that while the system has been in the works for some time, they pushed forward with the rollout of the homeless-specific model in the wake of a recent heat wave that saw one homeless person die in their vehicle on June 19.

The messages will include addresses of warming or cooling centers, as well as emergency shelters.

“Everything helps,” said Pastor Scott Wagers of CHAM Deliverance Ministry, who has been critical of notification efforts in past weather events. “I’ll never forget a couple of episodes in recent years — that cold snap where four people died, and the February flood. Homeless people were literally swimming out.”

Wagers, who regularly visits camps bearing food, water and other supplies, said that while the notifications may be heeded by some who sign up for the service, ultimately a greater in-person warning effort is needed.

“We have to go out to where they are and tell them, ‘this is coming,’” he said. “An emergency warning system is good, but implementation is another thing.”

During the June heat wave, homeless people at a creekside camp in north San Jose said they knew there were cooling centers available but weren’t interested in going for various reasons: A lack of transportation, a desire to bring along an animal companion, resistance to leave unguarded possessions behind.