Churches rally to fill gap for homeless in western Nevada County | TheUnion.com

Churches rally to fill gap for homeless in western Nevada County

A group of faith communities in western Nevada County is organizing a nomadic homeless shelter program, The Family Circle, which would provide space at various churches for local families to sleep at night.

Brendan Phillips, Nevada County's housing resource manager, organized a meeting with local faith communities earlier this year to brainstorm ways churches could rekindle their involvement in helping the local homeless population.

Before Hospitality House opened Utah's Place, its homeless shelter in Grass Valley, the organization operated as a nomadic shelter at various churches around western Nevada County for eight years. Phillips said he reached out to the communities who were part of that effort in hopes of bringing them back into the conversation.

Now, those communities are planning to revive the nomadic shelter model in order to serve homeless families, whose options for temporary housing are limited in western Nevada County.

According to Phillips, he brought the faith communities together, but the idea of The Family Circle was their own. He has now stepped back to allow those communities to move the effort forward.

"I think it's great they are taking a small bite out of this problem and seeing where it goes," he said.

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Filling a gap

The Salvation Army's Booth Center in Grass Valley provides apartments for nine homeless families at a time. But according to Sarah Eastberg, who runs the program, there's typically a wait list of 12 to 20 families hoping for a spot at the center.

The long wait list is due in part to a change in policy at the Booth Center, Eastberg said. The Salvation Army used to enforce a strict time limit for clients living at the center, allowing each family to stay for no longer than 180 days. But, in the past few years, it's become more difficult for Salvation Army's housing case managers to find permanent housing for clients, so the organization has stopped enforcing the time limit.

"That's where the bottleneck has happened," Eastberg explained. "We can't just kick them out and then create a new cycle of homelessness in order to get more people in, because then we're not meeting the needs of our families."

Families can now stay at the Booth Center for as long as it takes to get them into permanent housing, so long as they are working toward accomplishing their goals, Eastberg said.

According to Phillips, rising rent prices in Nevada County have put more people on the streets and made it more difficult for case managers to find permanent housing for homeless individuals and families in recent years.

"There's a direct correlation between a percentage in rent increase and the number of people experiencing homelessness," he said.

And the problem isn't unique to Nevada County.

"We're seeing way more families do whatever they can to keep a roof over their head in the face of rising rent. And we're seeing that all over the state," Phillips said.

Hospitality House, western Nevada County's only year-round emergency homeless shelter, has a room with four beds designated for families.

According to Debbie McDonald, development director for Hospitality House, multiple families at a time are often crowded into the room, and the shelter doesn't have another place to send them.

"If we get a family here that we want to get into a different situation as quickly as possible, there's nowhere to put them," McDonald said.

Community members often donate hotel vouchers to Hospitality House, which the organization uses in emergency circumstances for families without shelter, McDonald said. But it's a temporary solution.

The nomadic family shelter would provide a place for those families, she said.

It would also allow Hospitality House to free up the four beds it has designated for families, which McDonald said would be a great way to provide more beds for women. There are 14 beds in the women's dorm at Hospitality House and 36 in the men's. McDonald said the shelter occasionally has to turn women away who need a place to sleep because there isn't enough space available.

Making it happen

Sierra Pines United Methodist Church, near Lake of the Pines, participated in the nomadic shelter program during Hospitality House's early days.

The church's minister, Joan Pell, wants to help bring the nomadic model back for families.

"The idea is that we'd have them stay for about a week at a time and then they'd rotate to another church," she said.

But the faith groups are still working out the specifics, Pell said.

The Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains, a church in Grass Valley that was part of the original Hospitality House program, is also planning to open its doors for The Family Circle.

"It's a simple way to do something helpful," said Kevin Tarsa, the church's minister.

The faith communities, Tarsa said, are working together on an ongoing basis to iron out the details of a nomadic family shelter.

"The goal is to get it open as soon as possible," he said.

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Pera, email mpera@theunion.com or call 530-477-4231.