Nevada City collaborates with county and nonprofits to move campers off Sugarloaf Mountain
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Sugarloaf Mountain looms over Nevada City, its flattened top the perfect vantage point to observe the vista below, its trails a playground for residents to escape into nature.
But Sugarloaf also has long been a refuge for homeless campers, its manzanita thickets the perfect hideout for the dispossessed of Nevada County. And along with that decades-long reputation as a haven for the unhoused come problems of noise, trash, occasional crime and the ever-present danger of a sparked wildfire.
Periodically over the years, efforts have been made to clean up Sugarloaf’s 35 acres, purchased by Nevada City from the Mull family in 2011. Recently, a coalition of neighbors started advocating for more broad-based outreach and more permanent solutions to the issue of illegal homeless encampments on Sugarloaf, and the associated risks of fire, crime, and environmental destruction.
This week, Nevada County launched an ambitious 30-day project designed to change the paradigm that plagues Sugarloaf. Simply put, the campers who have been living on Sugarloaf are being moved into hotel rooms as a group, and will work with a collaborative team to find more stable housing and make use of the social services that are available to them.
“This is a great opportunity,” said Mike Dent, director of Housing and Child Support Services for Nevada County. “We know we have to go beyond what we’ve been doing … We wanted to try something different.”
GETTING CAMPERS HELP
Last Wednesday, Nevada County’s Homeless Outreach and Medical Engagement (HOME) team met with law enforcement officers on Sugarloaf to walk the property and assess the homeless camps there. At the turnout across from an access road was a large pile of full trash bags hauled out by one of the campers.
Joe Naake, supervising outreach case manager with Hospitality House, estimated about a dozen homeless people were living on Sugarloaf, scattered among six or seven camps.
One camp occupied by a couple and a dog was elaborate, with one tent containing a full-size cast iron wood stove. Another sported a full drum kit. Near a third camp, a vegetable garden with tomatoes was being planted and a fire pit was ringed with large stones.
Nevada City Police Officer Brian Fish — along with Nevada City Code Compliance Officer Amanda Kysar and Nevada County Sheriff’s Deputy Brandon Corchero — has been working with the HOME team to identify the campers on the mountain.
One camp, Fish noted ruefully, was not there just two days earlier.
“It’s amazing how much it changes in just a couple of days,” Kysar said.
“We’re up here once a week, trying to do some interdiction, trying to get ahead of it,” Fish said.
“It’s difficult,” he added, citing the Martin v. City of Boise decision that held that governments may not enforce ordinances that ban public camping unless they first provide enough shelter beds. “We have to be able to provide a place for people to go. We’re trying to do what we can, to keep citizens safe. How do you help people who don’t always want the help?”
Even though Sugarloaf itself is now city property, it is surrounded by county and private property, Corchero said, noting that most complaints about activity on the mountain come from county residents. Policing Sugarloaf is a joint effort, he said, adding, “We’re all working together for the greater good.”
Corchero, who has been working as the outreach coordinator for the Sheriff’s Office for about six months, also cited the Boise decision as limiting enforcement efforts. But he acknowledged there is little long-term gain from incarceration.
“The old days of arresting folks doesn’t solve the problem,” Corchero said. “If you can get them the help they need, that will ultimately reduce the homeless population.”
One camper, Ronnie Ray Custer, said he grew up in Nevada County and used to come up to Sugarloaf to party. After he lost his house in 2014 and then became homeless, he lived in his car before ending up on the mountain about a year and a half ago.
Being homeless is “like being a leper,” Custer said, adding that he has worked to make his fellow campers take responsibility for their campsites.
“You can’t just be a tick on a dog’s ass,” he said. “Your mom’s not here — so who’s going to pick up after you?”
TRYING SOMETHING DIFFERENT
Dent noted that Sugarloaf is a community, saying, “There is a connection and a hierarchy out there.”
Nevada County has partnered with the Nevada City Police Department, Dent said, asking the campers to “come down off the mountain” and into rooms at the Northern Queen Inn, where they will work with case managers.
“We’re not asking them to leave and just be in a hotel room for a month,” Dent said. “We’re asking them to focus on the next 30 days, (to identify) three things they want to change in their lives starting with housing.”
Sierra Roots and the HOME team will be an important part of the process, Dent said, noting while the Sugarloaf campers will have individual case managers, they will also make some decisions as a group.
“We are deeply committed to house them,” Dent said, citing the added impetus of managing an already at-risk population during COVID-19. “One is pregnant — you don’t want to be pregnant in the woods with the COVID-19 danger.”
Dent stressed the importance of the wrap-around services, with the campers deciding for themselves what they need most.
“If sobriety is the issue, (Behavioral Health) will find a place for them to go,” he said. “For some, it is mental health — so, let’s engage in treatment.”
Nevada City Police Chief Chad Ellis said his department is supporting the pilot program and noted the funding is coming from a number of organizations.
“We will be organizing the clean-up up there, that will fall on our shoulders.” Ellis said Tuesday. “The whole concept is, the campers will let us know what is trash and what is treasure. Anything left behind is being considered abandoned garbage. … Sierra Roots has a shipping container. Anything campers want to keep, if they don’t have ability to store it, we can use the storage container as an overflow, so we’re not throwing away their personal belongings.”
Nevada City also plans to create a fire break on the back side of Sugarloaf, Ellis said. He said he’ll be making a presentation on the collaborative efforts to address the homelessness encampments and fire dangers on Sugarloaf Mountain at the Nevada City Council meeting today.
To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4236.
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