Sprouting support: Hospitality House growing to meet needs of community’s homeless (VIDEO) | TheUnion.com

Sprouting support: Hospitality House growing to meet needs of community’s homeless (VIDEO)

Christopher Rosacker
Staff Writer

Few social issues strike a nerve in a community as much as its approach to homelessness.

Nevada County is no exception, and one organization is increasingly associated with the issue.

"If Hospitality House was not in the community providing emergency shelter, we would definitely have a hole in our safety net," said Jeff Brown, director of Nevada County's Health and Human Services agency.

The seeds planted by a handful of Hospitality House's founders in 2004 have today sprouted into the county's largest homeless services organization.

“It truly takes an array of services by both government and community providers and volunteers to overcome the barriers an individual may have to overcome homelessness.”

— Alison Lehman, Nevada County’s assistant executive officer

In the beginning, zoning restrictions dissuaded Foothills House of Hospitality from establishing a permanent shelter location. Instead, its founders partnered with area churches, which took turns nightly to feed and house homeless guests brought to their door.

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"Some nights we didn't fill up," said the Rev. Don Lee, a cofounder and former board president of Hospitality House. "But that didn't last long. Within the first few months, we began to fill up every single night."

Lee looked back at the organization's humble start during Tuesday's ground-breaking ceremony for the first permanent homeless shelter in the county. That shelter is called Utah's Place, in honor of the renowned activist Bruce "Utah" Phillips, a Hospitality House cofounder.

"There has not been a night in the last nine years where we have not had a place of shelter for the homeless, and we give thanks to our faith community for that," Lee said of the nearly 30 churches that collaborated to fulfill that need.

From the seeds Hospitality House's founders planted, a budding tree has grown that today does more than feed and shelter some of Nevada County's estimated 500 homeless individuals.

It has grown branches that stretch beyond food, clothing and shelter to services such as case management, medical and dental assistance, life-skills training and connecting guests to services Hospitality House cannot provide to organizations that do through partnerships.

Nevada County provides general assistance or administers programs such as food stamps, behavioral health, social security, housing vouchers, Medi-Cal and other assistance. But neither the county nor the cities of Grass Valley and Nevada City feed and shelter their homeless residents.

"It truly takes an array of services, by both government and community providers and volunteers to overcome the barriers an individual may have to overcome homelessness," said Alison Lehman, Nevada County's assistant executive officer.

Other service providers that make up the safety net include the Salvation Army, the Food Bank, the United Way, Community Recovery Resource, Divine Spark and the Emergency Assistance Coalition, among others.

And like the maple tree that was ceremoniously planted Tuesday at the groundbreaking for renovation of the building that will become Hospitality House's own shelter, the nonprofit's services to its guests will continue to grow.

"We have evolved," said Cindy Maple, the nonprofit's executive director.

Thanks to a $148,000, one-year grant, Nevada County's largest homeless service organization will launch a rapid rehousing program geared to get people back into homes that will allow the nonprofit to staff another full-time position in that capacity, as well as a housing specialist and extend the service to more than the nonprofit's guests.

Housed in a Pathways to Independence Room at Utah's Place, the program will take a methodical, one-at-a-time approach to the barriers in finding a home, such as job preparedness, seeking disability assistance, Social Security, Medicaid and Medi-Cal or veteran's benefits, as well as arranging for glasses or dental work, Maple said.

Once a week, Western Sierra Medical Clinic provides a free clinic for the nonprofit, where guests can receive TB testing or flu shots, among other services. Sierra Family Medical Clinic also provides dental exams, cleanings, fillings, crowns and bridges, dentures, extractions, hygiene, education and prevention.

"Just like it takes multiple service providers to assist a family, it took multiple agencies to support Hospitality House," Lehman said.

While its services have branched out, Hospitality House's shelter shuffle and feeding function in many ways are its roots. But those services will change once Utah's Place opens this summer. Most notably, the 28 churches that currently host guests will no longer serve in that role.

They will, however, still be needed to help feed those in need.

Hospitality House could not operate without its volunteers and donors, but the nonprofit has also built partnerships with other agencies.

"The city of Grass Valley has been a huge supporter of us since day one," said Jeffrey Dupra, Hospitality House's outreach worker.

"I can only be proud that the city, in a way, maybe in a small way, was able to work with Hospitality House," said Mayor Dan Miller.

Other perspectives

In addition to its breadth of support, Hospitality House is not without its detractors.

"The difficult part is they work with a population that at times can have a lot of challenges," Brown said.

"The homeless are a varied population. Some suffer from unemployment and some suffer from dependence on substance abuse and mental illness."

One of the most common criticisms is that its services and those of its peers attract homeless people to the community.

"You can't point your finger at Hospitality House and say that is the reason we have a homeless problem," said Grass Valley Police Chief John Foster.

With California hosting 21 percent of the country's homeless population, a number of other organizations also provide services in Nevada County to homeless individuals.

Although not all homeless, approximately 4,360 people in Nevada County were taking advantage of state medical welfare as of February — nearly double the number seeking the service in the fall of 2010. Similarly, a state food welfare program saw nearly 1,500 more qualified participants in the same time frame, up to 3,540, according to the county.

While Foster doesn't blame the nonprofit or its partner agencies and their services for the problem, he said that Grass Valley has a reputation as "friendly" to homeless people.

"Having a homeless shelter does attract people from other areas," Foster said. "How much? I don't have an answer. But we have looked at our most problematic people in our community and the top 10 offenders. Thirty percent are not from our community."

Lehman, saying she is speaking only for herself, disagrees. Utah's Place is for individuals that are on the brink of long-term homelessness and engage in Hospitality House's services, she said.

In addition to its sobriety standards, Maple said guests are expected to invest in Hospitality House's program.

"We are very aware of the concern that a shelter will draw people to this area," Maple said. "We are in total agreement that we don't want to be a magnet because we have our hands full providing services for the people that are already here."

The state not only requires that cities and counties create zoning for a shelter, it also leverages infrastructure funds to ensure a community adequately provides for its homeless people, including housing. Most shelters are funded in part by their local governments, said Grass Valley City Councilwoman Lisa Swarthout.

"This whole project is unique in that it is privately funded," Swarthout said. "It is amazing how much they have done without the government involved."

Even though the state's housing codes also indicate that shelter zoning be set aside without conditional permits, Hospitality House agreed to some conditions, such as one that prohibits them from providing food to people not enrolled in their services, Foster said.

Partially, this stipulation is aimed at not attracting transients to the area who don't meet Hospitality House's strict sobriety standards.

"We found that the people that go to Hospitality House aren't the ones that cause the challenges," Foster said. "The challenges are the people who are not accepted by Hospitality House and then go illegally camp."

Public transit routes have been altered to help guests get to jobs and job interviews, medical appointments and other places but will also keep them from lingering in the neighborhood, Maple said.

"I think what happens is you have a negative element in an area, and it gets attributed to Hospitality House. But in fact, the people that are causing the problems are not guests at Hospitality House," said Swarthout. "It's a perception issue, one that is not a reality … I'm not saying people don't have legitimate concerns. But oftentimes those concerns get attributed to Hospitality House unfairly."

When Utah's Place begins operating, some of Hospitality House's funding grants have mandates limiting the amount of time a guest can remain in a program to six months.

"Once we are in Utah's Place, we will be strictly enforcing the time limits," Maple said.

For those who don't seek Hospitality House's services — for reasons that include mental illness, pets, substance abuse or simply a preference for solitude — the nonprofit has an outreach program.

"Our goal is to attempt to meet with them where they are at (and) get them to Hospitality House," Maple said. "But if not, we determine what they need and get them connected."

A large component of the outreach is Jeffrey Dupra, who patrols streets, parking lots and forested homeless camps in an attempt to connect. He is tapped into a network of homeless people. When one hasn't heard from one of their own, they often tell Dupra first.

"How long would that person have been out there like that without being found if Jeffrey wasn't connected?" Maple said in an earlier interview with The Union.

Dupra works closely with all three of Nevada County's local law enforcement agencies as they adopt practices to triage homeless people rather than cycle them through courts and jails.

"We transitioned from being oversight (to Hospitality House) to becoming partners to resolve homeless issues long term," Foster said.

While working together on outreach, the city's police department also does background checks for Hospitality House and has a liaison officer dedicated to the nonprofit.

"There are people in our community who will not seek help or treatment, but we want them off the streets because they cause problems for businesses and on private property," Foster said.

"But moving them around is not a long-term solution. Where (Hospitality House) has helped is in trying to get them off the street with us."

The cost of homelessness can be quite high, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Chronically homeless people access $35,000-$150,000 per year in public services, Maple said.

Hospitalization and incarceration expenses can add up quickly, making homelessness surprisingly expensive for municipalities and taxpayers, according to the alliance.

"People point to the police as the solution, be we aren't," Foster said. "We are a Band-Aid."

One of Hospitality House's long-term goals is to develop transitional housing units.

"There is a national movement to house people and not just shelter them," Maple said. "It is more cost effective to put them in housing."

However, Maple notes, it will be years before there is enough transitional or low-income housing locally to meet the demand.

"There are very few opportunities to take a mid-step to permanent housing" in Nevada County, Maple said.

Until that branch grows, Hospitality House will be focused on opening Utah's Place and getting its services running.

"I don't usually sit and measure where we came from," Maple said. "But now we will have our own building. I'm pretty proud of where we are now."

To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email crosacker@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4236.

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