December 28, 2011 | Back to: News

Plight of homeless at forefront in 2011

Editor's Note: As we head into the promise of a new year, The Union takes one last look back at the top 11 stories of 2011 and the impact they had on our community. The week-long series runs through Saturday, Dec. 31. Today we review our coverage of the homeless, which began with the death of William "Billy" Kelly, a homeless man who was found frozen to death in Nevada City on Feb. 27.

Old Man Winter visited Nevada County with a vengeance in late February, dropping an estimated three feet of snow in some parts and pounding overnight temperatures into the lower 20s.

When the sun rose on Sunday, Feb. 27, 51-year-old William "Billy" Kelly was dead. His frozen body was found along Miner's Trail, under the Broad Street Bridge in Nevada City.

A descendant of the last Maidu chief, Kelly's death brought the plight of the homeless to the forefront.

There are at least 500 homeless people in the county, according to Hospitality House Executive Director Cindy Maple, whose agency provides services and shelter for many of them.

"It gets more challenging every year, because the struggles are more pronounced with the economy, housing and employment," Maple said, adding that more people are staying homeless longer. "We've seen more people fall into homelessness who normally wouldn't.

"Awareness is absolutely growing. There is a lot of focus on homelessness right now," Maple said. "People are very compassionate and are very concerned."

Shortly after Kelly's death, another severe snowstorm struck in March and Nevada City responded by opening a warming shelter for two days, at an estimated combined cost of about $2,000 to the various organizations involved.

This season, Nevada City already opened a warming shelter in November, thanks largely to help from the Salvation Army, which coordinates most of the services and planning. Other partners include Nevada County Health and Human Services, Behavioral Health and Pet Services, the Food Bank of Nevada County, and the Hospitality House.

Homeless advocacy group Divine Spark also offers services in Nevada City. With the help of five local business owners, Divine Spark hands out 250 vouchers a week (at a cost of about $5,000 per month) that are exchangeable for food.

Divine Spark founder Thomas Streicher turned to the business owners after the collapse of his homeless feeding center, housed at the Nevada City Veterans Hall on Pine Street, where he fed between 30 to 60 homeless people five days a week for a cost of about $3,000 per month, according to Streicher's estimates.

Renting the Veterans Hall was costing about $20 per hour, Streicher told The Union, for a monthly total of about $500.

After failed solicitations with the city to increase his operation to a seven-day feeding center, Streicher struck what seemed to be a solid secondary solution with the help of a local restaurant, Amigos & Co., which agreed to feed homeless individuals daily.

With this agreement seemingly secured, Streicher gave his two-week notice to vacate and terminated his lease of the Veterans Hall with Nevada City.

However, within days of Streicher's giving notice, Amigos & Co. backed out of the deal and the city would not reinstate Divine Spark's lease, leaving the homeless feeding center itself without a home.

With no feeding center, Streicher turned to the voucher program, which he said he will expand if he isn't able to find a place to rent to house his hoped-for seven-day feeding center.

Streicher said his services are need more than ever, as he works with a population that has grown to nearly 300. Some live in homeless camps - or tent cities - on the outskirts of Grass Valley and Nevada City.

In November, a retired police officer shed light on the possible environment and health hazards of the conditions at a Bennett Street camp on private land in Grass Valley.

After hearing of these conditions, a Penn Valley couple took it upon themselves to bag one-and-a-half tons of decades-old accumulated waste, despite being officially designated as trespassers.

When word spread of Shane Slattery's and Heather Gereau's camp cleaning efforts, locals rallied to support them. Some offered to help bag trash, haul it away, cover gas or dumping charges and even just to ensure the couple can afford food while they toiled.

Slattery and Gereau moved on to a second camp of Coyote Street in Nevada City, with plans to keep cleaning.

Their goal is to get the camps to a point where it is only a matter of maintenance, enlisting campers themselves to do the cleaning and volunteers hauling the bags away.

Getting the campers to clean is one thing, getting them out of the camps is another matter.

"It is difficult to get these people connected to services," Maple said, as campers are more isolated and less visible than homeless people who qualify for Hospitality House's services, which prohibits pets, intoxicated clients and violent offenders.

In October, the Hospitality House closed escrow on a 6,500-square-foot facility at 1262 Sutton Way in Grass Valley that will become the organization's permanent home, providing year-round overnight sleeping quarters for as many as 54 guests.

Since Veteran's Day 2004, Hospitality House itself has been somewhat homeless, acting as coordinator and transporting guests to a rotation of host faith community center for dinners and overnight shelter.

Hospitality House has a welcome center at 230 S. Church St., downtown Grass Valley, where guests have access showers and social services.

The new facility is named after the late Hospitality House co-founder and homeless advocate Bruce "Utah" Phillips; "Utah's Place" will include a memorial library featuring some of his books, papers and music, said Phillips' widow and current board president, Joanna Robinson.

"The bigger thing for me is we're struggling every day to handle the numbers we're seeing every day," Maple said of Hospitality House. "The challenge is to not turn people away every day."

To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, e-mail or call (530) 477-4236.

Christopher Rosacker

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The Union Updated Dec 28, 2011 01:05AM Published Dec 28, 2011 12:52AM Copyright 2011 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.