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New homeless welcome center opens

“Have you ever been homeless?” asked Sharon Bell, 57, sitting in the lounge of the new Hospitality House welcome center in Grass Valley on the first day of its new season.

When the interviewer said “no,” she turned her face away with a distant look in her eyes and slowly nodded her head.

“I never thought I was going to be homeless, too,” said Bell, one of the guests who was assisted by the homeless shelter last season. “I came from an upper-middle class family, you know. But things happen.”



On Wednesday she was just a visitor as the Hospitality House inaugurated a new welcome center adjacent to the United Methodist Church on South Church Street in Grass Valley. The opening came one day after the Grass Valley City Council rejected an appeal by neighbor Steve Enos to keep the center closed.

Throughout the afternoon, guests trickled into the white, stucco two-storied cottage and greeted each other like old friends. However, neighbors had mixed opinions about the shelter.




“I am fine with it,” said Jim Sperling, a 57-year-old Vietnam War veteran living across the street. “From my understanding, the homeless people will be within the grounds and won’t be wandering around. It’s a place for them to do their laundry, take showers.”

Sperling said there was a burglary in the neighborhood about a month ago, with a police chase down the street.

“Such things can happen anytime, anywhere. It doesn’t mean it’s going to happen because of the homeless people,” he said.

Sperling’s 28-year-old neighbor, Josh Boss, was wary of the new shelter.

“I would be worried about living across the street if homeless people were all over the place,” Boss said. “I’d be concerned that there would be more crime in the neighborhood.

“I’d like the people to get some help, but it may get out of hand. We have enough problems already, with drunk people from the bars going down the street.”

Larry Engelking, 50, a few houses up the street from Boss, said the shelter is “a good thing,” but it should be “monitored closely.”

“Law enforcement should keep an eye out,” Engelking said.

Police eyes

Under a new condition imposed by the City Council in its vote Tuesday, Grass Valley Police Chief John Foster has authority to immediately shut down the shelter if there is a disturbance that he deems a threat to public safety. Hospitality House could appeal the closure and the matter would go to a public hearing, Mayor Gerard Tassone said.

When new guests are checked in, the police will look out for those convicted of sexual crimes, those involved in pending criminal investigations of felonies or violence against people, and those with warrants for serious offenses.

Foster said the police would want to work with Hospitality House staff to arrest those with serious warrants – a point of concern for some welcome center supporters who fear it would keep needy people away.

The check-in process, according to Foster, will help keep out people whose “presence may create an unsafe situation for the staff, other guests or local residents.”

“We need to balance our sensitivity to (the needs of the guests) with the needs of the neighbors and their concerns about safety,” Foster said.

‘Thrilled’ with the opening

On Wednesday, the guests – many of whom had received service from Hospitality House before – were thrilled with the new facility.

“It’s wonderful,” said Susan Seeman-Pultz, 35, a returning guest. “This place is so much better than the last one. O gosh! This place is a mansion …

“I am glad this is open. We now have a place to go, place to sleep, place to eat, place to do our laundry,” Seeman-Pultz said.

Bell, who’s now employed thanks to a Hospitality House referral, said the shelter gives the guests “a sense of family.”

“I keep hearing people referring to the homeless as if they were a whole different populace,” she said. “But we are not an alternate populace. We are all one. Some are just more fortunate than others. It (homelessness) can happen to anyone.”

City Council members cleared the way for Wednesday’s opening of the welcome center at their meeting late Tuesday. The council voted 4-0 to uphold the Planning Commission’s approval and deny Enos’ appeal. Vice mayor Mark Johnson was out of town.

Enos, the South Church resident whose appeal blocked the opening, said the council decision in his absence denied him due process. In early October, he had informed officials he could not be at Tuesday’s meeting, and a special council session had been planned for today to hear the matter.

“I was by my father’s side, with my stepmother, one year ago when he died after a long and painful fight with cancer,” Enos said. “Being with my stepmother and not having her be alone (on the one-year anniversary) was a higher priority than being in Grass Valley on Tuesday.

“Guess due process does not apply to me and my neighbors.”

Mayor Gerald Tassone said, “Council members wanted to hear the testimony and not have people come back. They said they wouldn’t have changed their minds even with Steve’s testimony.”

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City Editor Trina Kleist contributed to this story. To contact Soumitro Sen, e-mail soumitros@theunion.com or call 477-4229.

To contact Hospitality House, call 271-7144. To visit the welcome center, go to 230 S. Church Street, Grass Valley.


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