Nancy Baglietto: What binds us together
It’s not easy staying positive when countywide blackouts are becoming part of our “new normal.” It is particularly hard on small businesses that rely on daily sales to make ends meet. It is rough on families already living paycheck to paycheck who must throw food away due to lack of refrigeration, and those dependent on well water whose pumps no longer are operational. Not to make light of the situation, but it compounds our feeling of “power-less.” No doubt, the outages have affected us all. As I sat alone working only off of the dim light generated from my slowly dying laptop, I realized that these times, while isolating, have also connected us. We face a common problem that binds our common goal – to safeguard our community, our neighborhoods, our homes.
But what if you don’t have a home? What do you do? Where do you go? Where do you sleep? There are several agencies that provide shelter for Nevada County residents with no place to call home, but at the end of the day, there are just not enough beds and not enough affordable places for people to rent, let alone own. This scenario is not just Nevada County’s problem. As Americans, we are living amid a national housing crisis.
I’ve been reading in the paper about fires popping up, and I’ve been seeing chatter on social media speculating causes, often attributing homeless people to the source. As I wrote in my article on fires and homelessness, there are a variety of ways that fires start and campfires generally contribute to roughly 3.8% of all fires in California while faulty power lines remain a leading cause. If any homeless person is found intentionally starting a malicious fire, the violation no doubt warrants prosecution. But it is the fires that are rather intended for survival purposes, namely campfires, that have become one of our community’s greatest worries. Because of this, Hospitality House works closely with local law enforcement and Nevada County Behavioral Health through our street outreach program. These partnerships have become invaluable both on and off the streets, allowing teams of officers, outreach workers and medical personnel to connect those living on the streets with services aimed at protecting themselves and the community. We are a small, tight-knit community and recognize the importance of working together.
Unlike other forms of fire ignition, campfires by homeless people are more challenging to address and bring with them a host of legal and humanitarian complexities. Because Utah’s Place remains at maximum capacity most nights, as do the extreme weather, domestic violence, and family shelters, it leaves our remaining unsheltered homeless individuals to survive on the streets or in the woods. Given our mountainous climate and wooded landscape, our homeless neighbors do what most people would do – they strive to survive. So when people make campfires, they generally do so for practical human purposes – cooking food and remaining warm.
In a landmark decision, Martin vs. City of Boise, the 9th Circuit Court dismissed the District’s Court decision, citing that the enforcement of the City of Boise’s ordinances constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th Amendment. In summary, the decision put forth that law enforcement personnel could not arrest homeless individuals for camping when there was not enough shelter beds available for homeless people to access. The 9th Circuit’s decision created a “constitutional right to camp, holding that cities cannot prevent anyone from camping until they first provide enough shelter beds for everyone, thus exempting public encampments from a host of public health and safety laws.”
At the end of the day, homelessness is linked to a lack of housing. Being homeless is a housing issue and we just don’t have enough of it. The chatter on social media that suggests Hospitality House’s presence in the community is bringing homeless people to our community is thankfully not true. People are homeless in Nevada County because we have a housing shortage coupled with high rents. We also do not have the diversity of housing required. Our community members who have lost their housing for whatever reason remain here in Nevada County because they have connections–whether it be through upbringing, family, friends, or work. Data collection from the January Point in Time count shows that 80% of Nevada County’s homeless population has lived in the community for 1+ years prior to experiencing homelessness and 59% are originally from Nevada County or stay to be close to family.
In the wake of crisis, eliminating the only year-round emergency shelter for the general homeless population that houses 69 guests every night, would only displace 69 more people to the streets. This scenario doesn’t help anyone and even further increases our risks. Last year, Hospitality House served 332 unique homeless individuals at our shelter—332. That’s 332 people who otherwise would have had to seek cover, food and warmth on the street and in homeless encampments.
Of the 332 individuals Hospitality House sheltered, 120 moved into permanent housing. Could it be more? Of course, but we need more resources, not fewer. There are dozens of people on the streets right now on waiting lists to get into housing and treatment—dozens. While I occasionally hear recommendations to “bus people out of town” or “push them deeper into the forest,” there is no solution in either. The solution is providing housing for our own; and, forcing people further out into densely wooded areas only invites campfires in remote locations that are even more difficult to monitor.
One often unknown fact is that grant funding is dependent on a social service agency being accessible and near resources – grocery stores, medical facilities, pharmacies, public utilities, and transportation. Accessibility and proximity are key. This is why Hospitality House is working diligently with the County of Nevada and the City of Grass Valley to introduce more housing to the area as well as a day services center. An accessible, homeless day resource center would provide services and resources in one location, reducing the need for people to visit multiple sites.
As we all think about ways to increase community safety while juggling even more power outages that are sure to come, I encourage you, during these times of crisis, do not break away from your community—come together when our town needs it the most.
Nancy Baglietto serves as executive director for Hospitality House, with previous executive experience for agencies focusing on homeless people, homeless animals and the parks they use.
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