Nevada City has taken some heat this week over not opening an emergency warming shelter for homeless people, as temperatures dipped below freezing over the past several nights.
As reported on page one of today’s edition of The Union, the city does plan to open the warming shelter this weekend, on both Friday and Saturday, as a winter storm advisory announced by the National Weather Service called for 3-12 inches of snow in the foothills with low temperatures falling into the teens.
Much of the criticism landing at the front door of City Hall centers on the criteria that were outlined for opening the shelter, which weather conditions met Wednesday and Thursday nights, and an apparent miscommunication on whether volunteer group Sierra Roots was prepared to oversee the shelter at the Nevada City Veteran’s Memorial Building.
The city’s criteria for initiating a warming shelter are a low temperature projected to fall below 28 degrees; if there is “significant” rain with a low of 32 degrees; or if snow covers the ground, also with a low of 32 degrees. City officials said they didn’t open Wednesday because they foresaw a greater need with more severe weather later in the week and also stated Sierra Roots was not ready to staff the warming shelter with volunteers.
“We had all our volunteers ready and trained,” said Sierra Roots member Janice O’Brien. “We had 15 volunteers in there ready to go.”
Along with why the warming shelter was not opened earlier this week, there is also disagreement over whether a warming shelter should even be operated at the Veteran’s Building. And others question whether it’s the role of city government to provide such a shelter at all.
A Nov. 20 meeting of the city council saw several residents speak against the Veteran’s Building housing the warming shelter, pointing to past problems presented by homeless people loitering in the area. But as appropriately noted by Councilman Robert Bergman, those complaints made with the city were not due to previous emergency shelters set up at the Veteran’s Building but rather stemmed from a former feeding program hosted there on a daily basis.
The Veteran’s Building has been the site of a warming shelter since 2011, when William “Billy” Kelly, a descendant of a Nevada County native tribe, was found dead beneath a bridge in March. Kelly was the second man in a matter of months to die due to exposure during a harsh winter, after Mark Nye was discovered dead in his sleeping bag outside a Grass Valley business in January 2011. Just a few hundred feet from where Kelly’s body was discovered, a large contingent gathered a few days after his death to remember the man. Bergman and former council member Reinette Senum both spoke to the need to find a warm place for those needing shelter on such cold nights.
Later that month, as a winter storm approached, Nevada City council members quickly put a plan into action to provide such an emergency shelter at the Veteran’s Building. After the idea was initiated at council meeting, the late City Manager Gene Albaugh worked with representatives from the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the Nevada County Food Bank, AnimalSave, Hospitality House and Nevada County social services officials to make it happen the following day.
Twelve homeless people — and four dogs — found shelter from that storm due to community collaboration. Nevada City officials estimated the cost of providing the shelter to be about $2,000.
“We put together a plan and set it to action,” former Social Services Director and current Assistant County CEO Alison Lehman told The Union in 2011. “That it came together so quickly is really a reflection of the community partners we have with our nonprofits. And it’s the city council who led the charge. They should be commended.”
Considering how quickly that came together, it is disappointing that nearly three years later, a more permanent solution continues to evade our community.
If the Veteran’s Building isn’t the right site for such a shelter, what other options are available?
If the previously approved criteria are not enough to determine the need, what should be the threshold for such a determination?
If there is a substantial need for such shelter from a storm, with hundreds of homeless people here in western Nevada County, why is the topic not on the agendas of other government agencies rather than only the Nevada City council?
While those are all certainly appropriate questions that deserved to be discussed, they should have been put on the table long before another winter storm was on the horizon. A comprehensive discussion on the homeless members of our community — the problems they present, the services they need and government’s responsibility in dealing with both — is long overdue.
We are hopeful that such a conversation is not lost in the calm after the storm, only to be rekindled either by another avoidable death or the threat of such when the next winter storm arrives.
Our View represents the opinions of The Union editorial board, which is comprised of members of The Union staff, as well as informed members of the community.