This story was originally published by Fresnoland, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to making policy public.
Cooling and warming centers in Fresno will be open on more days for longer hours, thanks to new guidelines approved by the Fresno City Council on Thursday.
The new guidelines mean that, moving forward, Fresno’s designated cooling centers will open when temperatures are forecast to reach 100 degrees or more.
The city of Fresno operates 18 community centers which are free and open to the public at least five days a week from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Until now, when temperatures were forecast to reach 105 degrees, four of the community centers – Ted C. Wills, Frank H. Ball, Mosqueda Center, and Pinedale Community Center – are designated cooling centers, which means that pets are allowed inside, and Fresno Area Transportation offers free bus rides to the select centers, along existing routes.
The city council’s new rules will change that.
The new cooling center policy not only lowers the threshold for activating cooling centers, it also extends the hours of operation to 8 p.m., as opposed to 7 p.m. The city will now announce when cooling centers will be open 72 hours in advance, as opposed to the current 24 hours.
“It is clear that a changing climate is a major risk to the health of our residents. As city leaders, we have the responsibility to take action, and this is a significant step toward protecting our elderly, vulnerable, and homeless residents,” Councilmember Miguel Arias said in a Sept. 8 news release about the changes.
The resolution cites increasing heatwaves, the high cost of energy and inadequate heating and cooling systems in their homes as reasons for the changes.
The new guidelines also identified Maxie L. Parks Community Center, Ted C. Wills Community Center, Mosqueda Community Center and Pinedale Community Center as the sites for the cooling and warming centers – adding that the city should identify other potential sites in the future. The new policy left out Frank H. Ball Community Center, which was used as a warming and cooling center for the past year, but there was no explanation for why.
The resolution also noted that the city will work to “accommodate the transport of individual’s pet(s) consistent with local, state and federal laws and regulations.”
What do changes to cooling center operations mean?
The change could help protect the health of those who do not have access to or can’t afford air conditioning because prolonged periods with a heat index of 90 or higher are dangerous.
This change comes after yet another brutal summer with the number of triple-digit heat days rivaling the record set in 2021. As of Sept. 29, the city of Fresno experienced 64 days that reached 100+ degrees. Temperatures were also in the mid-90s in late September, which is considered “unseasonably” hot.
Over the course of the summer, dozens of unhoused residents in Fresno said that they often have nowhere to go on extremely hot days and, as a result, experience headaches, fatigue and sleeplessness.
“There’s time you can’t even breathe,” an unhoused man named Michael Richardson said of the heat.
Some said that they hadn’t used cooling centers because the centers were not consistently activated, while others said they could not access the cooling centers because the locations were too far away to walk.
Pet transportation was not included in an earlier draft of the policy, but was added after an unhoused woman who wished to remain unnamed shared with Fresnoland that she could not use the free public transportation to cooling centers because the bus would not allow her to transport her dogs.
On Sept. 1, Councilmember Miguel Arias said that he was unaware that only service dogs were allowed on buses and that he understood that to be a significant barrier.
“I always understood that people can take their dogs on the bus; I learned that that is not the case,” Arias said during a Sept. 1 City Council meeting. “It has to be a service dog which means that most homeless people will not take the bus to a cooling center, so we have to figure out how we work that through.”
Advocates say centers need to be open longer
The resolution addressed changes to warming centers as well, as temperatures in Fresno slowly cool down, and the city gears up for winter.
Warming centers will operate from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. on nights when temperatures are forecast to drop below 35 degrees, according to the resolution.
However, some advocates for the unhoused community fear that the changes to cooling centers won’t be enough to help keep people safe in the winter.
Cindy Pambino, an advocate with Christ Helping Hands, said that Fresno City Council operate warming centers from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. and that they invest more resources into notifying the community. She also asked that transportation services be made available to warming centers for people with disabilities.
Brandi Nuse-Villegas, another advocate with the unhoused, who spends summers passing out bottled water through Project H2O and winters giving rides to warming centers, was critical of the changes, demanding that warming centers open at 50 or 40 degrees.
She said winters are difficult and, but for the volunteers, many unhoused people will be left outside in freezing temperatures. She told Fresnoland that, just like in the summer, many unhoused residents are not sure of the exact temperature and do not know when the resources are available.
“We have this amazing resource that could save lives,” Nuse-Villegas said Thursday, “but people won’t go if they don’t know about it.”
The story is part of a series reported with support from USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2022 California Fellowship program , with engagement support from the center’s interim engagement editor, Monica Vaughan.