Nevada County town looks to create ‘Opportunity Village’ | TheUnion.com

Nevada County town looks to create ‘Opportunity Village’

Keri Brenner
Staff Writer

A 30- to 40-unit microhousing community for the homeless is in the works in Nevada City.

"A sleeping bag out in the woods doesn't cut it," said architect Charles Durrett, co-sponsor of the proposed project, known as Opportunity Village — Nevada City. "We wouldn't let that happen to a cat or a dog, but we'll let that happen to our fellow human beings."

Durrett, of McCamant and Durrett Architects, and co-sponsor Janice O'Brien of the nonprofit Sierra Roots, said the proposal would be to supplement and complement existing homeless shelters and facilities in Nevada County, such as Hospitality House's 54-bed Utah's Place shelter in Grass Valley.

With county officials reporting up to 700 homeless people in Placer and Nevada counties, and O'Brien and Durrett estimating the actual number is closer to 1,000, only a portion can be served at Hospitality House and the area's half-dozen other programs, they said.

"The homeless count is growing by the day," said O'Brien, who was one of the co-founders of Hospitality House.

"It's due to our economy — the lack of low-income housing, low wages — people can't keep up.

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"It's a whole systemic problem in the country," she added. "People can't close their eyes and say, 'Let's get rid of it,' because it affects the whole community."

A public meeting to discuss Opportunity Village and hear about how it is working in Eugene, Ore., will be held 7 p.m. Monday, at the Elks Lodge, 518 Highway 49, Nevada City.

The guest speaker will be Andrew Heben, creator of the Eugene project and author of "Tent City Urbanism: From Self-Organized Camps to Tiny House Villages."

"We want to make sure this village is as elegantly conceived and implemented as we can possibly accomplish," said Durrett, who, with wife Kathryn McCamant, led the creation of Nevada City's cohousing community and Wolf Creek Senior Cohousing in Grass Valley. "We're not going to let this thing look like a tent city."

Durrett said he is looking at four to five potential sites for Opportunity Village — Nevada City.

Most of those are publicly owned properties that are "underutilized," he said. In Eugene, for example, the city has leased the land for Opportunity Village for $1 per year.

Durrett said he is in talks with Nevada County, which owns one of those sites. He declined specifics on potential locations while talks are still in progress.

Susan Wiesner, treasurer and acting president of the Greater Cement Hill Neighborhood Association, said her group met to discuss the project on Nov. 3.

She said the association has not yet taken any position on the proposal and that several people from the group would be at Monday's public meeting.

"It's way too premature (to take a position)," Wiesner said. "We really don't know that much about it."

Cement Hill Association member Tom Stone said the group discussed whether the Pello family property at Highway 49 and Cement Hill Road, opposite the Nevada County Jail, was under consideration.

The property has been for sale in the wake of the death May 8 of family patriarch Melo Pello.

Durrett, who said he has put an offer in to buy the Pello site, said the property is only "a last resort" for Opportunity Village because it would be "too much in your face" to place a homeless community on Highway 49 sitting next to the Nevada County administration complex.

"We want to be neighborhood-friendly and Opportunity Village-friendly," he said.

If the right site can be found, organizers would file an application for a conditional use permit and there would be a public hearing, he said.

Durrett, who lived two years in Denmark and who is internationally credited with bringing the Danish concept of cohousing to the U.S., said he is envisioning the Pello site as more suited for a second Nevada City cohousing community.

"Our first job is to have Nevada County realize that this needs to be done," said Durrett, who has supervised Nevada City's winter "warming center" at the Veterans Hall in the past. "And that it needs to be done in a hurry — the location is secondary."

He and O'Brien said they hope to have something in place by the spring.

The key, they said, is rallying community support and letting go of the idea that homeless people "should just get a job" and do it by themselves.

"The whole notion that you have to pull yourself up by the bootstraps is an American myth," Durrett said. "It's science fiction."

The village would help people get back on their feet by offering an address and central telephone. While the units themselves would not have utilities such as running water, sewer or electricity, services would be offered at a central yurt. Porta-potties could be set up and water trucked in, Durrett said.

He said he met last week with volunteers and staff at Habitat for Humanity's ReStore shop in Grass Valley, who said they want to pitch in to help build the housing units.

"The number one question I'm getting is, 'How can I help?'" Durrett said.

According to the Eugene Register-Guard, the Oregon project, which had its one-year anniversary in August, has been a success story.

"It has gone better than I thought it would," Eugene Police Lt. Eric Klinko was quoted as saying in a June 15 article by Edward Russo. The village "has not been a burden to the neighborhood in terms of a crime impact."

Durrett said the village concept will work well for those homeless people who have pets, addictions or mental issues that would exclude them from Hospitality House, which prohibits guests from having pets, using drugs or alcohol or being disruptive of others.

In addition, since Utah's Place requires guests to leave during the day, Opportunity Village would offer both a refuge and stability for people who feel they have no place to go except to hang out on the street.

It would also offer relief for merchants who complain that homeless people are loitering in front of their stores — and respite for police who have to answer those complaints.

In Oregon, the residents of Opportunity Village have regulated themselves ­— including kicking out people who violated their contracts for conducting themselves in a responsible manner.

"There's certainly no perfect management approach (for the homeless)," Durrett said. "But there are optimum ones.

"All of them far exceed the 'just police these people' approach," he said. "They far exceed the 'let's just wait until they die' approach."

To volunteer to help with Opportunity Village or for more information, call Sierra Roots, 530-265-5403.

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

KNOW & Go

What: Opportunity Village, Nevada City, public meeting.

Who: Guest speaker, Andrew Heben, Opportunity Village, Eugene, Ore.

When: 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 10

Where: Elks Lodge, Nevada City, 518 Highway 49, Nevada City.

For more information on the local effort: Sierra Roots, 530-265-5403.

For information on Opportunity Village, see http://www.opportunityvillageeugene.org.