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Stakeholders discuss homelessness a year after packed town hall meeting

Sonya Gonzales a homeless woman in Nevada County, contributes to Divine Spark's Homeless Day Center in Nevada City in February 2016.
Laura Mahaffy/lmahaffy@theunion.com | The Union

On Sept. 10, 2015, homelessness consultant Robert Marbut spoke to a packed house at The Center for the Arts in Grass Valley.

Marbut critiqued the community for its lack of information about its homeless population. He also focused on the need for a facility that not only served food and provided beds, but also offered services.

One year later, homelessness remains, though elected officials and nonprofits say a discussion has blossomed.



“Me, personally, I’m trying to be more open-minded,” said Supervisor Ed Scofield, chairman of the Board of Supervisors when Marbut spoke here last year. “I think what I’m seeing is more cooperation.”

Jason Fouyer, mayor of Grass Valley, also sees that cooperation. County officials, along with those from his town and Nevada City, are at the discussion table with local homeless nonprofits.




Those discussions are key if the community is to reach any solution to the problem of homelessness.

“At least there’s a dialogue happening, instead of people just pointing fingers,” Fouyer said.

Taking action

Local leaders didn’t immediately implement Marbut’s suggestions. One nonprofit, Divine Spark, did take action in the form of the Streicher House.

The Streicher House, named after Divine Spark’s founder, is a homeless day center in Nevada City. Now open six days a week, the house provides a place for people to get a meal, shower, wash their clothes and connect with county services.

Shirley Kinghorn, executive director of Divine Spark, said her group assesses the center’s guests and tries to overcome any obstacles to finding a job they may have.

“The biggest obstacle, I think, is the lack of housing,” Kinghorn said.

Jeff Cowen, program supervisor of Hospitality House, noted that a change in state and federal funding has shifted dollars away from Nevada County. His group’s Rapid Rehousing program now has more participants and less money.

“We’re doing more with less money,” he added. “That’s going to be a problem.”

There’s no easy answer to the housing problem, though there are plenty of possibilities. Some locals favor tiny houses — small residences that could provide housing to the homeless.

Janice O’Brien, president of Sierra Roots, has advocated for tiny houses. Janella Kirkman, executive director of Spirit Peer Empowerment Center, also supports the concept.

“Unless we get homeless people housed, we are going to stay in the same rut,” Kirkman said.

Supporters in the past have publicly lobbied the Board of Supervisors for the tiny home concept, though it’s taken no action.

O’Brien plans to bring a presentation about tiny homes to both the Nevada City Council and Board of Supervisors. Her first hurdle to make tiny homes a reality is acquiring the land.

That could prove difficult in a community known for its attitude of “Not In My Backyard,” O’Brien said.

Scofield, previously opposed to tiny houses, said he’s opened his mind to the idea, though he’s not a complete supporter. While not convinced, he’s willing to tour a tiny home village.

“Maybe if I see it, I’ll have a different opinion,” Scofield said.

What’s next

The Nevada City Council recently picked homelessness as a topic to address in its strategic plan. One of its first steps includes a trip next month to Petaluma to see its homeless program.

Councilwoman Reinette Senum, the town’s designated advocate for homelessness, will attend.

“We don’t have to start from scratch,” she said.

The trip to Petaluma will provide ideas, but there’s still the problem of money. Senum wants a bill pushed through the state Legislature that would mandate cities and counties to solve their homelessness issues and provide the funding to accomplish the goal.

The cost likely would be enormous, but Senum argues it would be cheaper than fighting forest fires and emergency room visits.

“We can’t afford to do nothing any longer,” Senum said. “We need the elected officials to go out there and take some risks.”

Evans Phelps, mayor of Nevada City, said the effort to combat homelessness needs a leader, a paid professional to coordinate efforts and implement solutions.

But, like the tiny home concept, the question of funding remains.

“I don’t know where you’d get the money,” Phelps said. “Is the state going to give us money to do this?”

Scott Thurmond, interim executive director of Hospitality House, agrees with Evans about the need for a leader. However, he emphasized that a knowledgeable leader would still need the grassroots support of the community.

And that goes back to working together.

According to Fouyer, progress has occurred on that front, though more work must be done.

Phelps is one of many who agrees.

“Are we going to do something or are we going to continue to let this problem get worse?” she asked.

To contact Staff Writer Alan Riquelmy, email ariquelmy@theunion.com or call 530-477-4239.


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