Nevada City-based nonprofit Sierra Roots got its start in 2010, working to feed area residents who found themselves homeless.
As board president Janice O’Brien notes with a laugh, she started out handing out sandwiches and water in a church parking lot every Thursday. Eventually, Sierra Roots began operating an extreme weather shelter in Nevada City, opening for 27 days over Thanksgiving and Christmas season in 2016-17.
“We flew by the seat of our pants,” O’Brien said, acknowledging the ad-hoc organizational methods that kept the tiny, all-volunteer organization going.
That’s all changing, however. Sierra Roots has hired a full-time, paid executive director and is in the beginning stages of a major fund-raising push for a tiny home village to house the chronically homeless.
“We’re on the cusp of major growth and major change,” O’Brien said. “Not in the sense of our mission — that remains the same. But we’re growing up.”
Former Nevada City planner Paul Cogley, who began volunteering for Sierra Roots last year, accepted the position a few months ago and has been working quietly since then to create a “paradigm shift” for the group. The executive director position, which pays $4,000 a month, is full-time by design, Cogley said.
“I didn’t see results coming from less than a full-time effort,” he said. “I’m giving this everything it deserves.”
Cogley was city planner for Nevada City from 1997 to 2004. From 2006 to 2013, he served as executive director for Churches United Corp., a Brooklyn nonprofit working on affordable housing and jobs training for low income families and individuals.
Cogley returned to Nevada County in late 2016 and in February 2018, heard O’Brien speak at a local church.
“I was (so) moved, went up to her and gave her my card,” Cogley said.
“Sierra Roots is well-named,” he said. “It’s a grassroots organization like I’ve never seen. There’s a special energy that’s amazing.”
A year ago, Sierra Roots was just starting the process of trying to mature as an organization, Cogley said.
It was clear to him, he said, the board needed to stop being a working board and separate out some roles.
“Janice, especially, had too much responsibility,” Cogley said. “She loves the one-on-one. But it made sense for her to let go of the administrative duties, for the organization to become more stable.”
Fund development is a big part of the nonprofit’s strategic plan, O’Brien noted. Cogley’s mandate is to diversify sources of funding to make Sierra Roots’ finances more stable.
One of his first steps has been to work on grant funding for Sierra Roots’ lunches; about 2,000 lunches were served last year, he said, all funded through donations. Similarly, Sierra Roots spent $11,000 last year on motel vouchers that were paid for by donations.
“We want to let folks know about the great strides Sierra Roots is making right now,” Cogley said. “A new executive director is a commitment by the board to do more than ever. I take the responsibility very seriously.”
“We got a lot of flak this winter,” O’Brien said, adding, “It’s good to see the growth. It’s scary, but it’s good. I’m willing — that’s all I have to be, is willing.”
Sierra Roots has been working for years to build community with the homeless, primarily in Nevada City, who cannot or will not go to Hospitality House for a variety of reasons including addiction and pet ownership, O’Brien explained.
Sierra Roots’ proposed solution is a community of tiny homes with a community center.
“This project is not just for the homeless, it’s for the whole community,” O’Brien said. “Our biggest thing is community. It is not just them and us — it’s we together.”
Sierra Roots has been negotiating with the owner of a property within Nevada City limits for a year now and is putting together a proposal for a long-term, low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to buy the parcel.
The organization has hired local architect Jo Garst to design the community facility that will anchor the site, in conjunction with 36 to 38 cottages of about 288 square feet that come complete with a bathroom, kitchenette and bedroom.
The center will feature an income-producing hostel with dorms for travelers needing lodging for a night or two, as well as a respite dorm for homeless guests who have been ill and need a place to recuperate. The center will also house office spaces, a kitchen and dining hall, a library, and laundry and shower facilities.
“It will be very light and open,” O’Brien said, noting that often those who are homeless don’t like the feeling of being closed in.
O’Brien estimated the project will cost about $5 million — a number that conforms to USDA guidelines.
“I’ve been told that’s feasible,” Cogley said.
O’Brien gives credit for the organization’s continued success to the “incredible” support from “very, very” generous donors. And she thinks that will continue with the push to build the tiny home village.
“There’s so much desire to see people get a place of their own — and that means the community will be healthier,” she said.
Cogley agreed, saying, “All our programs have been about community building. The village is the most profound vision (of that).”
The cottages will be easily built and O’Brien envisions sweat equity being put into the construction by the clients who will be moving in.
“It’s important for them to be part of the plan,” she said.
To that end, Cogley said, Sierra Roots will hold a “charrette” stakeholder meeting on May 9 to seek input from its homeless guests.
O’Brien has an ambitious timeline in mind, hoping to have the community center built in two and half years.
“If all the permits flow smoothly,” said Cogley, interjecting a cautious note to which O’Brien responded, “The manifestation of our dreams will come as quickly as we believe.”
Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at email@example.com.