Charles Durrett: An opportunity for solution to homelessness in Nevada County | TheUnion.com

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Charles Durrett: An opportunity for solution to homelessness in Nevada County

There's an old saying that says that any man who sits back at the scene of a crime, or an obvious and blatant injustice and does nothing to prevent the travesty, but could have, is just as guilty as the perpetrator themselves.

County government's number one job is the health and welfare of its citizens. Leaving folks without shelter in our streets and woods is not safe for a homeless person or the community. A tiny house village would be a first step until more long term solutions, like low income housing, are built.

The County continues to refuse to lease available land near the Juvenile Hall, even for a trial period, which would create immediate safety for all of us.

Dying from exposure is a tangible concern for the homeless, and occurs with shameful regularity. Those that make it through the winters are still confronted with a life expectancy of about 50 years — less than two-thirds the lifespan of the average American. And this is to speak nothing of the quality of life — our county's homeless contract disease, struggle with mental illness, and face abuse and assault at rates drastically higher than the average American.

Because of fire threat, environmental hazards of filthy camps, and the negative impact to our community which homelessness creates, inaction is not an option.

Unfortunately, our government lacks compassion when confronted by this suffering.

Though many exceptional organizations and individuals have worked tirelessly to give assistance to our homeless population, most of our elected officials have continued to disengage from finding viable solutions. To what extent is passively allowing your neighbor to die in the elements indistinguishable from actively killing them yourself? Would someone please explain the problem the Board of Supervisors has with a managed tiny house village with shower and cooking facilities? It would provide immediate shelter, safety and community at the lowest cost.

The simple convenience of a tiny home, and access to basic facilities — a door that locks, goes a long way in preventing the crime and chaos that happens when living out in the open. Living in a tiny house goes a long way in reducing stress and harm from exposure. People worry that an Opportunity Village might end up diverting funding from important county or city programs that are already financially stretched. Fortunately, a village is designed to be totally expense free for county and city governments.

Moreover, there's plenty of reasons to believe it could actually save the County a considerable amount of money. In 2012, the HUD secretary estimated that a homeless individual living on the streets costs taxpayers about $40,000 a year, actually a conservative estimate! However, multiple studies have confirmed that providing formerly homeless individuals with housing can easily reduce the cost to the public by over three-quarters.

There's a concern that helping the homeless is a slippery slope toward creating a welfare state, and that putting a roof over their heads would threaten the ethic of hard work and discipline. Additionally, if keeping people in their own homes is indeed a priority, then providing supportive housing, which has a proven track record of alleviating chronic homelessness, should actually be prioritized, as opposed to shunning.

The idea of the tiny-house community is new and thus lacks long-term empirical data to support its success. We do know, however, that supportive housing, at its most general level, can be enormously beneficial in pulling individuals out of chronic homelessness. We also know that cities around the nation are rapidly embracing this model.

Reports so far have been overwhelmingly positive, particularly from the more heavily studied Opportunity Village in Eugene, Oregon which serves as our primary village prototype. Often overlooked, however, is the potential an Opportunity Village has to benefit the community at large. Unregulated, yet already over-policed homeless encampments in the woods pose an extreme fire hazard to our community, which is already plagued by wildfires every year. Homeless encampments also often have serious negative environment impacts through improper waste disposal and trash generation. Camp cleanups are costly.

Finally, we know that this model, albeit new, is incredibly robust. The houses are easily constructed and mobile, allowing a community to stay intact and individuals housed even as it shifts geographically to accommodate changes. With input from community leaders and the homeless, we will create the village to the specific needs of our community.

Many people, once they get their feet on the ground, segue out voluntarily to jobs, to regular housing, and to a better life in the community. Because of fire threat, environmental hazards of filthy camps, and the negative impact to our community which homelessness creates, inaction is not an option.

Let's be responsible, let's do something.

Charles R. Durrett is the principal architect at McCamant & Durrett Architects in Nevada City.