‘I may have now, but I might not tomorrow’: No uptick in Nevada County homelessness amid COVID-19, but future concerns linger
By the numbers
As of June 8
Number of COVID-19 cases: 50
Number tested: 3,346
Number in western county: 12
Number in eastern county: 38
Number of active cases: 7
Number of recoveries: 42
Number of deaths: 1
Learn more at http://www.theunion.com/coronavirus
In recent months Janice O’Brien has not noticed a large uptick in local homelessness.
While the president of Sierra Roots has found some things more difficult during the pandemic — fewer senior volunteers available to serve free lunches and money has begun to run dry with the nonprofit’s fundraising events canceled — she has continued to provide services to those in need, and has no plans of stopping.
“We all have ways we can give to others — whether it’s money, time or prayer,” she said.
Although homelessness does not yet appear to be growing locally, O’Brien — like many other community members and public officials — is concerned that it will in the future, after the county’s commercial eviction and foreclosure moratorium ends on July 31, the economy continues to sputter and as unforgivable rents finally come due.
As such, homelessness remains a priority for county officials and many community residents. During the last point-in-time count, Nevada County saw an increase of individuals and families experiencing homelessness, from 271 people in 2018 to more than 400 in 2019. Of the 410 homeless people counted this year, 21% of those surveyed had serious mental illness and 34% chronically experienced homelessness, facing four or more bouts of homelessness in a four-year period or having been homeless for over a year.
According to a national poverty law center, homelessness is mostly caused by a lack of affordable housing options and poverty, followed by mental health or substance abuse issues coupled with a lack of services needed to combat those issues.
On the ground level, O’Brien believes that the housing first model holds true, and is trying to build a tiny house village community somewhere in Nevada County. But, she added, housing isn’t everything: “They need community, they need dignity, they need to be respected, they need to be treated well,” she said.
O’Brien’s mission is not rooted in charity, she said, but a mutual respect that spreads across humanity, with the understanding that, “I may have now, but I might not tomorrow.”
PLANNING FOR THE WORST
County officials say housing projects are continuing despite the pandemic.
One such program includes creating more resources for homeless individuals by building a 5-acre, $223,900 property on Old Tunnel Road, which is to include an estimated 6,000 square-foot center and about 40 affordable housing units with supportive services. The county has also earmarked $1.2 million to build affordable senior housing in Penn Valley. The Penn Valley Drive project will include 31 new units and is intended to be complete in March.
Nevada County Health and Human Services Director Ryan Gruver agreed with O’Brien’s sentiment, adding that the federal Paycheck Protection Program and eviction moratorium has likely prevented homelessness from rising. But he, like O’Brien, is concerned for the long term. Mike Dent, director of Nevada County Housing and Child Services, agreed.
“We kind of feel, because of the high degree of unemployment nationwide, that there will be an increase in distress level of paying rent,” he said.
The beginning of the pandemic saw an increased need for medical and food assistance programs, and as public budgets are being cut, Dent believes local governments will have to serve more people with less resources in future months. One opportunity, he said, is having the county continue applying for grant funding whenever possible.
But local officials have more plans. According to Dent, the county recently received a contract, not yet approved, of $1 million for a home loan program — $500,000 of which will go toward tenant-based rental assistance. The contract, set for approval sometime this month, allows the county to help at least 25 low-income renters stay in their apartments if they can’t afford their rent. Landlords, who are not made to comply with the program, will likely want to participate as they may be more strapped for cash.
Much remains the same in the housing world, as it did prior to the pandemic, according to Nevada County Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Lorraine Larson and Community Beyond Violence’s Tom Kellar, who helps people acquire housing.
The demand remains high for affordable housing and, during this time, the need is more important than ever as people are yearning to protect themselves from the novel coronavirus, Larson said.
“Our homeowners were so grateful to have a stable home so they could shelter in a place they felt safe,” she said.
Habitat for Humanity receives about nine calls per week and hundreds per year hoping to get on the pipeline toward homeownership, she said.
Just as the need remains constant, said Kellar, so, too, have the prices remained out of reach and the wait lists too long for people to acquire affordable housing.
Home prices remain stable in the county, according to a statement from the Nevada County Association of Realtors. The association expects sales to remain strong as it anticipates an “influx of buyers coming in from other areas” — a phenomenon they are calling “urban flight.”
WHAT ABOUT THE KIDS?
In July, The Friendship Club received $100,000 — of a $1 million pot of money from the Homeless Resources Council of the Sierra — to defend against homelessness. The nonprofit that aims to empower young women estimated 172 high school students in Nevada County were homeless in 2018 — a 36% increase compared to 2014.
Friendship Club Executive Director Jennifer Singer said the nonprofit has recently shifted to connecting with young people online, and has been providing food and basic services, which is a bit outside of the nonprofit’s mission. Upon the last check, the executive director said she hadn’t noticed a large increase in homelessness, but that it’s also harder to connect with kids as school campuses have been closed.
Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Scott Lay said he also has not seen an increase, and that his staff at the county office has been diligently working to connect with kids and ensure their mental health remains stable during the uncertainty of the moment.
Student services program coordinator with the Superintendent of Schools Office Melissa Parrett agreed with Lay, adding that while it’s difficult to accumulate data on housing instability at the moment, county officials plan to get a better understanding in the fall.
To contact Staff Writer Sam Corey email email@example.com or call 530-477-4219.
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The current level of active construction in western Nevada County is normal for this time of year, according to Barbara Bashall, government affairs manager with the Nevada County Contractors’ Association.