Homeless people in Nevada County discuss their problems, offer possible solutions to their plight
When sleeping outdoors, Ryan Smalley made a point of picking a spot the police wouldn’t see.
He didn’t want the hassle of officers finding him, homeless, camped out in a park. He’d get out his goose-down sleeping bag, a necessity in the colder months, find a good place where passing lights wouldn’t catch him and lie down for the night.
“I’d find spots out of view,” said Smalley, remembering the cold nights. “Most of the time the sleeping bag was enough.”
Les Addiego, a Hospitality House guest, knows what it’s like to live outdoors. He’s been homeless mostly by choice through his adult life. Addiego’s most recent stint was because of an accident he had while working construction in Hawaii, he said.
Severely hurt, Addiego returned to his home of Nevada County. He had plans to stay with family that didn’t pan out, leading him to the Sutton Way shelter in Grass Valley.
Both Smalley and Addiego said they’ve struggled with drug addiction in the past. They’re not alone.
Robert Marbut, a homelessness consultant who last month participated in a local forum, has said many homeless people suffer from substance abuse. Others have mental illnesses.
The pervasiveness of abuse has led some shelters like Hospitality House, to require their guests take an alcohol test each night before securing a place to sleep.
Drug use or mental health problems aren’t the only reasons for homelessness. For Debra Ramirez it was disobeying a landlord’s order. She allowed someone on her property he expressly forbid, and said she was pushed onto the street because of it.
Now she finds that securing another apartment is almost impossible.
“Basically, they’re closing doors on us,” she said. “Homeless folks have a stigma. They think we’re all drug addicts. They think we’re all dirty, that we don’t want to do anything with our lives.
“I just want a place to go home,” Ramirez said.
About two years ago Smalley lived with his father. A drinker, Smalley was also in a methadone program. One day he “got into it” with his father, leading to his expulsion from the property, he said.
Smalley said he went to Marysville, where he used a methadone clinic. He slept outside for some time, eventually returning to Grass Valley and moving into Hospitality House.
He spent some time in jail after a stint at the shelter. He returned to Hospitality House after six months behind bars, drug-free and refusing to use again.
He’s now living with his mother and volunteering at Hospitality House. He hopes to become the manager of a transitional home scheduled to open in the area, Smalley said.
Smalley’s taken positive steps that many others keep striving toward. Ramirez, a Hospitality House guest, walks the streets each day. Constantly stressed, Ramirez said people tell her there’s no place she can move into or that they’ll put her name on a list for housing.
She wishes the local government would provide apartments for the homeless, though she dismisses the idea of a tent city.
“They don’t know what the homeless go through,” she said. “I just wish people would give us a chance, that we can be a part of the community.”
Bunnie Morrison, another shelter guest, said she also has found difficulty securing housing. She has income through government programs, but, like Ramirez, keeps finding waiting lists instead of open doors.
Family helped some, though her encounter with a relative left her feeling less than human, Morrison said.
After her mother’s death and the subsequent loss of her housing, Morrison contacted a relative one day. She wanted a glass of water. Instead she was handed $100. The relative refused to give Morrison the water.
“I just wish that people understood how it feels to be homeless,” Morrison said. “We’re all human beings. I think people should treat people better.”
Almost $8.5 million, mostly federal funds, is budgeted this fiscal year by Nevada County for homeless nonprofits, homelessness prevention efforts and individuals, according to county records.
Smalley questions the effectiveness of that expenditure, saying he only sees increased police activity that further divides the homeless community.
“If people want to fix homelessness, put the money in the hands of the right people,” he said.
Smalley said outreach efforts must extend to homeless encampments. Some homeless people must be gently led to small, achievable goals.
James Rose, who said he grew grief-stricken after the death of his wife and spiraled into homelessness, also said government should increase funding for homelessness.
Rose suggested the government partially fund jobs. For example, a mechanic could pay part of a trainee’s salary, and the government pay the rest. Someone could then learn a trade while earning a salary.
Addiego said the community has a desire to help, but lacks the direction.
“I think everyone’s got a big heart and the desire, but they don’t know what to do,” he added. “And when they do figure it out, they don’t have the money to do it.”
According to Addiego, Nevada County needs a full-time drop-in shelter — a place where the homeless can get a meal, a shower and do their laundry regardless of the time.
The community also must properly classify its homeless population, a suggestion Marbut made last month in a town hall forum.
Addiego said some need mental health treatment, others physical rehabilitation. Many need drug and alcohol counseling.
“There just needs to be a place for everyone to go,” he added.
Smalley said a major problem is what he called the dehumanization of the homeless.
He wants people to know that the homeless people seen on the streets once had homes and vehicles of their own. Instead of judgment, he wants the community to show them compassion.
“I think people need to realize it’s something that no one is immune to,” he said.
Ramirez and Morrison also emphasized the need for compassion.
Wiping away tears at one point, Ramirez questioned if people feel like the homeless don’t belong.
“We’re not all bad,” she said. “We want to be able to live a life.”
Morrison said homelessness comes with its own set of fears. A shelter like Hospitality House removes the worst ones.
“I just feel bad for people, all of us,” she added. “People shouldn’t treat us this way. It wasn’t our choice.”
To contact Staff Writer Alan Riquelmy, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4239.
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