Other Voices
Greg Zaller

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December 11, 2013
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Learning firsthand how to help homeless people

Last Sunday, my wife and I got up a little late in our cozy home. As I looked out the window, I wondered what it would be like if I had to live outside. I got a little insight when I volunteered at the Sierra Roots cold weather shelter in Nevada City, and I would like to share it with you.

First, let me say that I am not a member of Sierra Roots. I just came there to help and learn something, and learn something I did.

I arrived at 6 p.m., as the several volunteers were just cleaning up from dinner, which included fresh roasted vegetables, a lovely salad featuring nuts and spinach, a potato dish, cake, homemade cookies, applesauce and coffee. All of the volunteers were such caring people. I can’t share names, but they ranged from the most prominent in our community to young adults little older than children.

Soon, it was time to leave me and another volunteer alone with about 12 sleepers for the night. I was nervous. I’ve never done anything like this, and I wished I was home. Some sleepers were already bedded down, but there were others who looked like they might be a problem, and in one case in particular, this is what happened.

As volunteers, we are instructed always to be present when someone goes outside to have a smoke to make sure everything is OK and nothing happens that would disturb neighbors. It was a close decision to allow the shelter to operate, as many neighbors protested, and approval was only given until Jan. 8 and for only the coldest days. The first “incident” was when one fellow followed the instructions on a sign that said not to smoke within 20 feet of the door. He had moved to this distance, when a loud voice called out, threatening him if he didn’t leave the area. He ran inside.

These shelters are attractive to the weak, and that is the idea: to protect them from freezing on very cold nights. They are a mix of people, from alcoholics to grandmothers to the mentally ill. The most disturbing event came when an alcoholic who snuck off and reappeared after a quick run to the nearby market, where he purchased and downed two flasks of vodka for $3.99 each. I believe bars are required to exercise some discretion when serving alcohol, and I don’t understand why the same wouldn’t apply to a liquor store when it had to do with a well-known alcoholic and all of the problems drinking 24 ounces of Vodka would and, in fact, did cause. After about an hour of raucous behavior, we were faced with either throwing him out in the dangerous cold or calling the police. So of course, we chose the latter.

There was a kind lady in the shelter who tried to help wherever she could from cleaning to sorting clothes. She was 61 years old. Her motor home had no heat and was abandoned on the side of the road somewhere. She doesn’t use drugs and would work anywhere but could not find a job and had to resort to panhandling. But she considered herself a volunteer first and homeless second. In the middle of the night, a man burst in sobbing and delirious about some mutation he had injured himself fighting off. We were able to calm him and let him curl up warmly on the floor to sleep. There were others in this category, more or less, who should be in a hospital, yet they wander our streets unwanted and unable to care for themselves. It is very sad. There were several vignettes like this through the night. To even tell these stories, I feel like I am violating someone’s privacy, but it is important that people gain some understanding.

These small and well-intentioned efforts to shield the downtrodden from the worst are important, but there needs also to be an effort to help them get back on their feet. Some may know that I am working on this with others by renting houses and making beds available at cost or without credit check to anyone willing to stay sober, follow the rules, find work with our help to pay the expenses and help others in their community.

These homes are like the families they might never have had, and they work together to become self-sufficient. We are having successes, and we are having some failures, but we are learning and improving. And we hope we can help a lot of people in the future this way.

Greg Zaller lives and works in Nevada County. He can be reached at gregzaller@gmail.com.

These small and well-intentioned efforts to shield the downtrodden from the worst are important, but there needs also to be an effort to help them get back on their feet.

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The Union Updated Jan 24, 2014 09:07PM Published Dec 31, 2013 09:11AM Copyright 2013 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.