Nevada County seeks to create homeless village | TheUnion.com

Nevada County seeks to create homeless village

Keri Brenner
Staff Writer

Nevada County residents, leaders, volunteers and other stakeholders in the issue of housing the homeless came out in force this week to hear a proposal for a microhousing village in Nevada City.

"Half the damn town is here," said Nevada City Councilman Robert Bergman, surveying the crowd of almost 300 people that filled the Nevada City Elks Lodge Monday night. "The support is there, but the follow-up will be difficult."

Bergman was referring to a plan to create an Opportunity Village of 30 to 40 microhousing units based on a successful model in Eugene, Ore. Andrew Heben, an organizer of the Eugene project, showed a video and slide presentation on the Oregon homeless community, whose one-year lease on city-owned land was extended last month by the Eugene City Council to June 1 of next year.

"It's going to take a few people who are willing to take leadership on this," said Bergman, who said he was optimistic. "I have never had a conversation with anyone who does not want to find a solution (for homelessness)."

Heben's presentation was cosponsored by Sierra Roots, a Nevada City-based organization that serves the homeless and offers weekly meals at Pioneer Park, and Charles Durrett of Durrett & McCamant Architects in Nevada City.

Sierra Roots President Janice O'Brien said anyone interested in getting involved may attend one or all of three follow-up meetings, on Nov. 20 and 25 and Dec. 10 at private homes. For more information, call 530-265-5403 or visit http://www.SierraRoots.org.

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Durrett said he is continuing to explore various locations and to meet with groups interested in helping to build the units.

"I think this is a win-win," said a teacher from YouthBuild, a Nevada County program that teaches construction to area youth. "What do you need?"

Durrett said he met Monday with YouthBuild students, who seemed eager to help with the project.

"As Andrew said, this has to start with a collaboration between the housed and the unhoused," Durrett said. "This doesn't work for everyone, but it does offer an opportunity to set up for success for some people.

"A sleeping bag in the woods is a setup for failure," he added.

He added that it would be "so much easier to provide services at a central location in a village-like setting. It's easier for all of us, instead of the incessant difficulty of searching for people in the woods."

Cindy Maple, executive director of Utah's Place, Hospitality House's 54-bed homeless shelter in Grass Valley, said she would like to see a more collaborative and cohesive approach to the whole issue of affordable housing in Nevada County.

"In the absence of enough affordable housing units and emergency shelter beds to meet the need for the number of homeless people in our community, we need to be looking at creative solutions," Maple said earlier on Monday.

"My hope is community leaders and agencies serving homeless people will also invest in developing more permanent solutions, such as forming an affordable housing coalition to address the affordable housing shortage and funding a Housing First model, both of which will help provide a more permanent solution to homelessness."

She said the model of Housing First centers on providing homeless people with housing quickly and then providing services as needed.

"What differentiates a Housing First approach from other strategies is that there is an immediate and primary focus on helping individuals and families quickly access and sustain permanent housing," she said. "This approach has the benefit of being consistent with what most people experiencing homelessness want and seek help to achieve."

Hospitality House, which offers programs such as cooking classes, self-esteem workshops and guitar lessons, has been highly successful in finding long-term housing placement for its guests, with almost 200 people housed in about the last 15 months.

"Utah's Place is a blessing from God," said Steve Pratt, 46, who was homeless for 20 years before coming to Nevada County two months ago and staying at Hospitality House. "They have the best food ever."

His stay at Utah's Place gave Pratt, who is on disability, and his sister Geneva Bigelow, time to find a permanent and affordable housing situation in the last week or so.

"With an application for Section 8, there's a two-year waiting list," said Bigelow. "Meanwhile, he's outside."

She said a place such as Opportunity Village would offer her brother "at least some shelter, a shower, and a place to store stuff so it doesn't get stolen."

Pratt said he appreciated the self-governing aspect of Opportunity Village. In order to be a resident, homeless people must sign a five-point contract agreeing to: 1. No violence to yourselves or others; 2. No theft. 3. No alcohol, illegal drugs or drug paraphernalia; 4. No persistent, disruptive behavior; 5. Everyone must contribute to the operation and maintenance of the Village.

"For Opportunity Village Eugene, our policy is no drugs or alcohol within 500 feet of the site — and this really hasn't been an issue for us," Heben said. "We do not regulate what residents do elsewhere. But if someone comes back intoxicated and creates a disturbance, any other villager can write an incident report, and then the council decides what the proper disciplinary action is.

"If there is an altercation, the general protocol is to ask that person to either go back to their house and stop creating a disturbance or leave the site," Heben said. "If someone refuses to leave, the village will call the police, but that has happened less than a handful of times in the first year."

Pratt said he likes the idea of the villagers acting as a self-regulating community — both to aid and to police each other.

"One person helping another person is insurmountable," said Pratt, who said he has lived in tent cities and in sleeping bags in the woods. "This is remarkable."

Heben, author of "Tent City Urbanism," said he is now working to build Emerald Village, a slightly more upscale version of Opportunity Village that, unlike the homeless community, has bathrooms and kitchens in the units and utilities.

In Opportunity Village, utilities are only available at a central bathhouse and yurt. Emerald Village is seen as being for people who are downsizing from more expensive housing as well as people working their way up to more stability, Heben said.

Greg Zaller of Nevada County said he recently received approval from Nevada County officials for an Emerald-Village-like microhouse.

"We call this building the Foothold House because it gives a foothold to home ownership," Zaller said. Nevada County Chief Executive Rick Haffey featured the new concept in his Friday Memo on Nov. 7.

Bergman, meanwhile, said he believed that residents with "persistence, patience and motivation" could succeed with Opportunity Village as they did in saving the Bridgeport Historic Covered Bridge.

"The hardest part is project management ­­— who's going to organize it and get materials?" he said. "Who will take the lead? That's my concern."

To contact Staff Writer Keri Brenner, email kbrenner@theunion.com or call 530-477-4239.

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