Nevada City Council dishes on Divine Spark director
February 12, 2012
Divine Spark Founder and Executive Director Thomas Streicher has demanded for months that Nevada City officials provide a facility to rent for his proposed seven-day feeding center for homeless people.
But Nevada City Council members say the nonprofit director has not taken advantage of several opportunities to work with them and other agencies in order to address the issue.
“Hospitality House went out and found their facility; they made it happen without Grass Valley handing them something,” said Councilman Duane Strawser. “It feels like we’re being demanded that we need to be the ones to hand over a facility to this one specific organization, otherwise we’re the bad guys.”
Streicher’s tactics have become more aggressive, protesting on the steps of City Hall and admonishing council members inside for not addressing his concerns. A small cadre of supporters have joined him in speaking on the issue during the public comment portion of council meetings. Streicher declared in a January meeting his intent to start a recall effort of council members for not allowing his feeding program on their meeting agenda.
“By law, we cannot respond at that time because it’s not on the agenda. All we can do is hear it and he takes advantage of that,” said Councilwoman Sally Harris, in reference to Brown Act requirements. “(H)e’ll take advantage of that and says things that are sometimes untrue and sometimes incomplete and unfair.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, the issue of homelessness was on the council’s agenda to review implications of a tri-city and Nevada County meeting on the matter, which council members said would provide an opportunity to engage Streicher.
But Streicher did not stay for the conversation. As such, he was not on hand to hear, or respond to, rebukes of him by all five council members.
Streicher again began to speak during Wednesday’s public commentary, which is provided to afford members of the public to address non-agenda matters. But this time, Mayor David McKay interrupted Streicher, telling him the issue would be discussed later in the meeting.
“Are you afraid to hear the truth?” Streicher said loudly, before leaving the meeting shaking his head. He later said he was not aware the issue was on the agenda.
“Did I know homelessness was on the agenda? I didn’t know. Call me ignorant,” Streicher said. “(But) if I stayed there, they would have just knocked it to me.”
Streicher’s absence from the dedicated portion of the meeting on homelessness is typical, said Councilwoman Reinette Senum. Streicher has been invited to Nevada City meetings with the Salvation Army to discuss the warming center initiatives; to Continuum of Care Committee meetings; to Sierra Roots meetings and others, Senum told The Union, and has not attended one.
“He has not been to one of these collaborative meetings. He is invited and his input and information is valued, but he’s not there,” Councilman Robert Bergman said at Wednesday’s meeting. “What are we supposed to do?”
Streicher denied receiving any invitations. He said he would be honored if city administrators wrote a letter, left a telephone message or even sent an e-mail inviting him to a homeless issue.
“I have never, ever been invited to a meeting,” he said. “Any one of those members has never called me, I don’t know what they are trying to prove by that. But it irritates me when they say that … If somebody wants to talk openly about homelessness, I will.”
Divine Spark was founded to provide resources to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Later, the organization began feeding western Nevada County homeless people every Sunday at the Madelyn Helling Library.
“I didn’t realize there was such a plight here for poor and homeless people,” Streicher said.
Over five years, Streicher grew the operation to a five-day program, which he then moved to the Nevada City Veterans Hall on Pine Street and fed between 30 to 60 homeless people at a cost of about $3,000 per month, he said.
In 2010, when Streicher still housed his five-day feeding program at the Veteran’s Hall, Divine Spark’s total gifts, grants and other contributions amounted to slightly more than $55,000, according to the organization’s tax documents. Of that amount, Streicher recouped $2,400 as the executive director. Renting the Veterans Hall from the city costs about $20 per hour, Streicher told The Union, for a monthly total of about $500.
“The vast majority of residents near the facilities he has utilized for his program ended up swamping us with negative comments and saying this isn’t OK here, things are happening here that we are not OK with, and we live here,” Strawser said at Wednesday’s meeting.
No stranger to opposition, Streicher attributed such complaints to fear.
“Here we are servicing poor and homeless people,” Streicher said. “I can’t think of why they would complain unless they were scared.”
Throughout the program’s use of the Veteran’s Hall, Streicher said only one person came to him complaining of litter. In the program’s six years, Streicher said that he never had the police called.
“(W)hen problems started happening and we got no assistance whatsoever from Divine Spark to try to solve them; it clearly wasn’t working,” said Harris. “It was terrible for everyone.”
After failing to receive council approval to increase his operation to a seven-day feeding center, Streicher struck an agreement with the local restaurant, Amigos & Co., which agreed to feed homeless individuals daily. With a solution secured, Streicher gave his two-week notice to terminate his lease of the Veterans Hall with Nevada City.
However, within days of Streicher’s giving notice, the restaurant backed out of the deal and the city would not reinstate Divine Spark’s lease, leaving the homeless feeding center itself without a home.
“When we did try,” Bergman said, “it didn’t work and it didn’t work in a pretty dramatic kind of way.”
Streicher turned to the five Nevada City business owners to support a voucher program, after the collapse of his homeless feeding center.
Since losing the Veteran’s Hall and doling out vouchers, Streicher has delivered a document he claims has more than 1,000 signatures of people who support the idea of a seven-day meal program. However, Streicher said this document is not intended to be a formal petition to be verified by the election commission, but merely evidence of support.
As to specifically discussing a seven-day feeding center on the council’s agenda – it’s been discussed and decided, McKay said.
“If it’s an agenda item we’ve had and already made a decision on, we have the right to say we’ve already discussed and not revisit it,” McKay said.
Council’s agenda is set by the city manager and mayor. Residents and non-residents alike can file a request to have an item placed on the agenda, or petition them to do so, but that doesn’t guarantee it will happen, McKay said.
“No one is entitled to be on the agenda,” McKay said.
Nevada City has two spaces available to rent for a feeding center: the Veteran’s Hall and the Seaman’s Lodge at Pioneer Park, Harris said. Another possibility is the soon-to-be-vacated Alliance for a Post-Petroleum Local Economy’s Center for Sustainable Living at 416 Commercial Street. But at least two other area nonprofits are already vying for that location.
“We have tried and we don’t really have other options and I don’t think we want to go down that road again, because there is nothing I’ve heard that would make me believe the outcome would be any different than it was the time before,” Harris said.
With the outlook grim for a city-allocated facility, Streicher is looking for a private site to house a seven-day feeding center at a cost of $3,000 a month, Streicher said.
City Manager David Brennan said he has tried to help Streicher find a location. One option is old armory at the intersection of Zion Street and Ridge Road. Brennan said he has spoken with the National Guard advocating for Divine Spark.
“We’d love to have a private facility,” Streicher said. “It’s moving in that direction.”
Another location is on Lower Grass Valley Road, Streicher said.
“I’m not going to be attending (council meetings) as much any more because I don’t have time for that,” Streicher said. “I’m not such a politician, as I am a human rights activist. I’m not much of a talker, I’m a doer. I’m action-oriented.”
To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4236.
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