Family friendly flea market helps fight homelessness in Nevada County |

Family friendly flea market helps fight homelessness in Nevada County

A staff member at the Spirit Peer Empowerment Center in Grass Valley examines the tomatoes in the center's garden. A flea market fundraiser to help pay for expanding services for the homeless is scheduled for Sept. 10.
Cory Fisher/ |

Faced with a 35 percent cut in state funds earmarked for mental health services and an increase in clients, the staff at the Spirit Peer Empowerment Center in Grass Valley say they’ve had to become creative when it comes to fundraising.

“No matter what, we’ll never do less because of having less money,” said executive director Janella Kirkman. “These programs are just too important.”

The nonprofit’s original mission has always been to provide confidential, free mental health services and support by a trained, peer-run staff. The unique model has attracted attention around the country. Yet a marked increase in Nevada County’s homeless population has caused the organization to expand services.

“Originally our focus was all mental health, but we’re seeing that many homeless individuals are simply not getting their basic needs met,” said Kirkman.

Over the past year, of the 589 “unduplicated” clients who came to the free drop-in day center — the total number of visits was 4,884 — 250 were homeless, reported Jennifer Morrill Gast, the center’s business, outcome and measurements manager. As a result, Spirit Peer Empowerment Center provided 381 showers, 146 loads of laundry and gave away 355 bags of groceries, with the help of the Food Bank of Nevada County. This is a significant addition to the ongoing services provided five days a week, such as a variety of support groups, meals, job and housing counseling, gardening programs, art classes, yoga and referrals to community social services.

“Sometimes it feels like we’re miracle workers,” said Kirkman. “The staff comes together and we’re doing all the things we’ve always done, plus more — only now with less money.”

In order to help raise funds to pay for the free services offered to homeless individuals, the center is hosting a flea market from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday at their expansive five-acre facility on Gates Place off Nevada City Highway in Grass Valley. Community members are encouraged to purchase a spot to sell their items at a cost of $15 to $25, depending on the size. Sellers are free to keep the money they make, or donate it to the Spirit Peer Empowerment Center to further aid homeless clients.

The family friendly event will also include a bounce house and face painting, as well as an “open mic” — with full sound system equipment – for any and all singers, instrumentalists, poets, comedians and others to perform. Hot dogs, veggie dogs, beverages and vegan salads will be available for purchase. Staff members will be on hand to give tours of the center, which is located in a large home complete with meeting rooms, kitchen facilities, handicap access, parking and bus service nearby.

What’s important to note, said Kirkman, is that these support services are making a difference for individuals who may otherwise slip through the cracks. Sometimes a person who comes in for a shower or a bag of groceries ends up being connected with other services that could help lift them out of a daily life of desperation.

“We took a huge hit in our budget but we will never take away or discontinue programs,” added Kirkman. “Not on our watch. They’re just too important.”

“Our support goes beyond the organized counseling groups — sometimes it’s as simple as seeing a client do an everyday chore in exchange for a shower,” echoed Morrill Gast. “You’ll see them in the garden or doing dishes in the kitchen. You’ll see their confidence build because they’re contributing and they’re suddenly part of something bigger. That’s when you start to see some of the magic happen.”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at

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