Out of sight, out of mind | TheUnion.com

Out of sight, out of mind

Eileen JoyceJanet Garth of Penn Valley fills a cart with food at Interfaith Food Ministry on Wednesday. The ministry distributes food to the homeless and other needy people in and around western Nevada County.
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This is the first of two articles examining the homeless problem in Nevada County. Today, county officials and homeless advocates discuss the problem and what’s being done to address it. Tuesday, The Union talks to the homeless themselves.

Can openers.

They are the vagrant’s tool of choice, perfect for opening tins of soup, peaches, stew – practically any nonperishable food that can be immediately eaten by those who aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from.

It’s one of the most frequently requested utensils at the Food Bank of Nevada County as the homeless stock up before heading into the evergreens, under a freeway overpass, or the comfort of a broken-down car.

And though it’s nearly impossible to count the people in Nevada County without shelter, Toni Thompson believes she just might have the answer, even if it isn’t a solid number.

“I know there are a lot of homeless, because many of them, they’ll ask me for a can opener. They just come on their bicycles, desperate for a meal,” said Thompson, executive director of the Food Bank.

As winter turns into spring, many of these people will crawl out from boxes that provide a roof against the rain, emerge from abandoned homes and take up residence behind hotels in Nevada City, supermarkets in Grass Valley or under satellite dishes right where we live.

It’s largely because the homeless have no place to go, county officials and homeless advocates say. The county has limited resources to help these people with employment, housing or health services.

“To be flat-out honest, there is nothing in this county (the homeless) can look to,” said Terry Winters, who runs the 10-room Manzanita Family Shelter west of Grass Valley, where families can live for up to three months while they save enough money to find a place of their own.

There is no shelter for couples or single men, not even in the harshest of winters. Manzanita has a waiting list that’s months long.

“The short-term solution is Manzanita, but I don’t think you’re going to see anything more beyond that,” Winters said.

The family center’s $180,000 yearly budget comes from a combination of state, local and federal grants.

It’s true, Winters said, that most of the homeless population hides from the public – panning for gold on the Yuba River, living in temporary quarters at a friend’s home or setting up shelter in a car. Rarely do you see the homeless panhandling in public.

“The appearance of the community doesn’t lend itself to the fact that there are homeless individuals. It’s a quaint community and it’s not apparent,” he said in a January interview.

Since coming to Nevada County nearly a decade ago, Winters can’t recall a discussion among power brokers about creating even a temporary shelter for the homeless in Nevada County. The closest such shelter is more than 30 miles away, in Marysville.

“We like to think of ourselves as an affluent community … and I don’t think many people are aware of how serious the problem is,” he said.

Hard numbers are difficult to obtain because “homeless” means so many different things. In the three-month period ending March 31, for example, the Food Bank of Nevada County served 161 individuals deemed “homeless.”

According to the United Way Community Assessment for 2001, 74 percent of the 30,807 households in Nevada County were below the median income level of $45,955 for a family of four, “which means they could be put into circumstances where they would need emergency assistance at any time,” the report says.

Nevada County has money for welfare programs, residential treatment centers and the Manzanita Family Center, but for the most part, “we rely on the community to help,” said Phil Reinheimer, director of the county’s Adult and Family Services Department.

There is grant money available for round-the-clock social workers, and the county can tap into $10,000 for emergency placement services, which Reinheimer said probably doesn’t meet the county’s needs.

“The need has always been there, but the funding isn’t,” he said. The county works with the Emergency Assistance Coalition, a nonprofit supported by 17 community churches that provides motel rooms, meals and gasoline for those temporarily without a home.

“The responsibility isn’t ours alone,” Reinheimer said. “We have to use existing resources to expand and get a cooperative effort that will work. There’s no way we can fund (a shelter) alone. It has to be a community effort.”

The sentiment is echoed by Jim Carney, the county’s director of housing and community services. Carney oversees the county’s low-income housing needs via subsidized housing vouchers and is at the head of the agency that studies ways to provide the county with low-income alternatives.

But he too said the problem is too large for a single public agency.

“Perhaps the county isn’t the ones to take this on,” he said, noting that there is a dearth of homeless advocates or groups to address the needs of those without a home.

There are those who would just as soon see the homeless problem disappear, said Carney.

“To the extent there might be a homeless (advocacy) group in Nevada County, they are not organized,” Carney said.

Jan Bray, executive director of the United Way of Nevada County, said providing shelter is not an “in” topic these days.

She too believes a public-private partnership must prevail if the homeless issue is to ever be seriously discussed.

“We don’t have corporations that can give large gifts,” she said, “but I think the community is generous … Just look at what happened in Nevada City” to help workers displaced by the March 20 fire there.

Bray believes, as does Carney, that politics plays a part in the process. There once was a plan to use the old Miners Hospital in Nevada City as a shelter, but the proposal died. There have been others too.

“It’s not politically popular at all” to discuss tackling the homeless issue, Bray said.

For those who see the homeless on a daily basis, there are no easy answers.

Bob Rupert knows, for he was once homeless. You can’t simply throw money at a problem, because people never begin to understand just why the homeless problem exists, he said.

In many ways, it’s a lifestyle choice – the guy down by Edwards Crossing on the banks of the South Yuba River may like going down there, Rupert said. Oftentimes, a handout is an affront to that person’s pride. And that’s just a tip of the issue, said Rupert, a Salvation Army envoy and Vietnam veteran.

“As long as we deny there’s a homeless problem, then those people are safe,” Rupert said. “The minute we tell people there’s a homeless problem, we start inviting them from out of town … and Grass Valley is not a happy place to walk the streets.”

Rupert and his wife, Nancy, are familiar to locals as bell-ringers at Grass Valley’s Cornish Christmas. The couple have been homeless advocates for years.

“Our homeless situation is nothing compared to Los Angeles, but it’s relevant. It’s still our responsibility. They are human beings, they’re souls, and we have to help them. We’re not a community if we don’t,” he said.

The problem, Rupert said, is that many just want a quick fix. Building shelters will do that without addressing the problem. Rupert has met these quick-fixers – those who bring a half-eaten plate of food to him during Cornish Christmas and ask if there are any homeless folks around to eat it, without stopping to place money in his red kettle.

“There’s a homeless problem, but there’s a mentality of people who could help them. Their helping hand needs to be something that isn’t a slap across the face,” he said.

Helping hands do exist, however, at places like the Interfaith Food Ministry and the Nevada County Food Bank, where volunteers sort, box and disburse packages of mercy to anyone who comes.

Bill Broocks, president of the food ministry, a consortium of 17 churches and 400 volunteers that serves 2,500 families a year, said his clients are more than needy.

“There are a sizable amount of people that come here who are living in distress. You can tell just by looking at the kinds of cars in the parking lot,” he said.

The interdenominational service relies on about $130,000 a year in donations, which is used to buy canned and perishable goods at local supermarkets and disbursed from its storefront on Whiting Street.

Broocks estimates there are 6,000 people in Western Nevada County who need the group’s services.

“Just go out and look at the people out there,” he said. “They’re hungry. If we weren’t here, the people wouldn’t eat. And we’re only supplementing their diet.”

It’s much the same way at the Food Bank of Nevada County, where Thompson said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the declining economy increased the need for food, just as donations have decreased sharply.

“The need is here, but the donations are not,” said Thompson, who for the first time is looking to go outside the county for much-needed grants to provide food to some of the 3,000 families that come to the food bank yearly. “The fact is, there is a homeless population in this county, but no one wants to acknowledge it.”

Warehouse supervisor Richard Patterson recognizes many of the homeless population from his days as a Gold Country Stage bus driver. There’s plenty of them, he says, but like Rupert, Patterson said he fears the county is skittish about addressing a problem that isn’t likely to go away any time soon.

“I think the county frowns on a (soup kitchen) because they fear we’ll draw more,” Patterson said, “but I think we have a public responsibility to provide for them.

“But nobody knows what to do, and nobody wants to put their foot out first.”

Area Resources to Help the Homeless

– Manzanita Family Center, 274-1606. Temporary shelter for families.

– Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Coalition, 272-2406

– United Way of Nevada County, 274-8111

– Food Bank of Nevada County, 12048 Charles Drive, Grass Valley, 272-3796

– Interfaith Food Ministry, 551 Whiting St., Grass Valley, 273-8132

– Nevada County Department of Housing and Community Services, 950 Maidu Ave., Nevada City, 265-1388

– Emergency Assistance Coalition, operates under auspices of Nevada County Housing Development Corp., 274-1606

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