HOME team, Grass Valley police collaborate on moving homeless out of campsites, into treatment or housing | TheUnion.com

HOME team, Grass Valley police collaborate on moving homeless out of campsites, into treatment or housing

It’s a post-apocalyptic landscape of soot and cinders, ash and trash. Torched manzanita bushes no longer screen burned out homeless camps.

This large swath of former ranchland bounded by Sutton Way and Brunswick and Idaho Maryland roads has lain fallow for decades, home to dozens of homeless campers drawn to its relative seclusion but walkability to services and stores.

It’s also the site of a recent wildland fire, allegedly started by one of those campers, that burned nearly 17 acres on a gusty, dry day. That fire also sparked a widespread outcry against homeless “campers” who set fires to cook, to warm themselves or — as in this case — unintentionally.

Timothy Bianchi, 21, has been charged with felony recklessly causing a fire to a forest and was arraigned Thursday in Nevada County Superior Court. He remains in custody on $100,000 bond. And just two days later, two men were arrested off Idaho Maryland Road, on open fire charges at their respective campsites.

“We’ve gotten really lucky with fires — but it just takes one bad day. Right now, it’s super-important to stay on top of it.” — Grass Valley Police Sgt. Brian Blakemore

While both those men were released on bond, their arrest was part of a new, intensive effort to clean up problem areas while getting people into housing and connected to services like addiction treatment. One side of the coin is Nevada County’s Homeless Outreach and Medical Engagement (HOME) team. The other side is a law enforcement team, put together by the Grass Valley Police Department, whose sole focus is on working with the homeless residents of the city.

At the beginning of October, Grass Valley Police Chief Alex Gammelgard and Sgt. Brian Blakemore sat down to “set the vision.”

“Just going out to the camps and picking up people on petty violations is not going to be the pathway to success,” Blakemore said. “A better outcome would be to get people out of the camps and into a more sustainable and safe environment, or treatment. Or if they refuse treatment and help, they (will) end up facing criminal consequences — but really, that’s the last resort.”

The police department decided to expand on the work that had been done initially by just one officer and create a three-officer task force of sorts.

“We’re taking it very seriously,” Blakemore said. “It’s a societal problem. It’s not going to go away.”

It only made sense to collaborate closely with the HOME team, Gammelgard and Blakemore said. As Gammelgard noted, it’s no secret that homelessness is often driven by factors including mental illness and substance abuse disorders.

“We know our criminal justice system but we don’t have all the names they do — they specialize in knowing the programs,” Blakemore said. “That’s their purview, so why re-invent the wheel?”

Team checking potential campsites daily

In early October, the police department team started marking all ingress and egress points to transient camps in the city limits with 72-hour abatement notices.

The abatement notices were developed after looking at the processes used by other jurisdictions, with the help of the city’s attorney.

“The signs detail out the process for cleanup,” Blakemore said. “It’s a 72-hour notice, it gives them a deadline to take their valuables and leave.”

According to Blakemore, on days when they have no meetings the officers each typically log 8 to 10 miles a day, tromping up hills and through heavy brush to track down campsites.

“We’re looking at neighborhoods and identifying undeveloped properties, anywhere someone could set up camp,” Blakemore explained. “We are checking on those daily and working on the greater goal of abatement as we go.”

Over the last three to four weeks, the trio — Blakemore, along with officers Brian Hooper and Dennis Grube — has been working with the HOME team to contact homeless campers and let them know there is a target date for them to gather their possessions and vacate the area before any enforcement action is taken.

And, in fact, quite a few of the camps in the area have been abandoned. During a walk-through of the area Wednesday, workers hired by private property owners and members of the HOME team were busy cleaning up piles of debris — pallets, propane tanks and just random garbage.

Some of the campers were helping out, too, Blakemore said, hauling trash up to the road for pickup.

“They are contributing to the solution as well,” he said.

At one tiny cabin tucked deep in the meadow, Blakemore says, they came in two weeks ago, made contact with the residents and posted a notice.

“The next day they were gone,” he said. “But since then it has been occupied by at least two other groups who actually left more trash — it’s worse than it was (before).”

The plan, now that the cabin is vacant again, is to cut back the vegetation and tear down the structure — and coordinate trash removal.

“You can see it’s not going to be a fast process,” Blakemore said. “It will take a couple of months to get on top of, so that once one camp gets cleaned up, another one doesn’t pop up in its stead. But (we) have committed to keeping guys on the team and active in the camps day to day. Its a full-time job — it won’t be easily accomplished.”

‘Meeting people where they’re at’

The HOME team formed in March and was fully up and running by July.

“Our main goal is to reduce barriers to housing,” said Hospitality House Outreach Manager Joe Naake. “Navigating the system is very difficult, for everybody. We have that access, we can get people assessed and into treatment quickly.”

For homeless “campers” who are service-resistant, the HOME team hopes to get them to take a first step toward engaging, to getting wrap-around with other services.

“Plus, it alleviates the strain on the ER,” Naake said. “We find them in that perfect moment, when they’re ready for help. It’s about breaking down barriers and building relationships, meeting people where they’re at. When you’re ready, we’re here — and law enforcement is out here with us as well.”

Between July and September, the HOME team engaged with 116 people, Naake said. Twenty-three received a Behavioral Health assessment and 27 were placed in drug or alcohol treatment. The registered nurse on the team has worked with 17 people to ensure they receive needed medication and are linked up with health-care providers. Eight have been placed in “bridge” housing and eight into a recovery residence.

“So 16 people have been housed and 27 placed in treatment, off the street and onto a path to permanent housing,” Naake said.

Keeping community safe

The bottom line right now, said Gammelgard and Blakemore, is protecting the environment, especially from fire.

“The one collective piece is a community standard,” Gammelgard said. “The fire danger and the environmental impacts are too great to accept (the status quo).”

The dry brush in the unimproved parcels within the city limits has created a tinder box, Blakemore said.

“We’ve gotten really lucky with fires — but it just takes one bad day,” he said. “Right now, it’s super-important to stay on top of it.”

As the cold weather moves in and until the rains start is a dangerous time, with an increased likelihood of campers using warming fires, Blakemore acknowledged. But colder weather also means an uptick of interest in services, which will make it easier to transition homeless residents out of the camps.

“We’re now running into abandoned locations with trash left behind and then we can work to organize a community cleanup, which is very effective,” Blakemore said. “And it’s a lot of fun. Everybody comes together, from all walks of life.”

It can be hard work getting rids of the mounds of trash and might feel like an overwhelming task.

But, Blakemore said, “There’s something cathartic abut taking abused land and bringing it back (to something beautiful.)”

To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, email lizk@theunion.com or call 530-477-4236.

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