Nevada County homeless people struggle toward progress, even with help
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories on homeless people and the agencies, organizations and resources available to assist them in western Nevada County.
Randi Bonilla loves reading John Grisham novels and other investigative thrillers.
She grew up in the Bay Area and lived what she deemed a “very comfortable” lifestyle.
In 1992, her husband got a job in Nevada County, and it was then that things were good.
She went to college and became a nurse. She frequently worked in addiction recovery spaces.
Due to the low cost of living, Bonilla said she didn’t need to work, which was nice because she was able to care for her young children at home in Cascade Shores.
Less than a decade later, however, her life began to cascade.
Recovering from drug addiction, Bonilla returned to drugs to numb the pain brought by the death of many loved ones. She acknowledged making poor decisions as a result, and swiftly fell into homelessness.
Having been sober for years, today she’s reconnected with friends and family members but she’s still homeless, searching for what she says is limited, stable living quarters in a place she’s called home for 27 years.
BY THE NUMBERS
According to a count from the Homeless Resource Council of the Sierras, there are at least 410 unique homeless persons in Nevada County. Eighty percent of those individuals have lived for at least one year in the county prior to being homeless, and 59% are originally from the area.
A 2018-19 Nevada County Civil Grand Jury report found the situation to be even worse. The report states a previous homeless count of 404 individuals “should be at least double to represent the true number of people who are currently considered homeless.”
Those struggling to find homes are not only unemployed individuals, or people earning wages below the poverty line. Those making between 30% and 80% of median income — $57,000 — have few options for housing, according to former president of Nevada County Association of Realtors Teresa Dietrich. The problem looked similar in 2018.
Tom Kellar, a housing advocate for Community Beyond Violence, said he once tried to help the night shift manager at Taco Bell obtain housing. Despite being fully employed, the manager was staying at Utah’s Place, Hospitality House’s shelter in Grass Valley.
A person making minimum wage must work “72 hours per week to afford a one-bed apartment here,” Ashley Quadros of Hospitality House and Daniel Belshe with the South Yuba River Citizens League wrote in an Other Voices opinion piece. A downward trajectory can happen quickly, they continue, if there is an unexpected accident such as a car breakdown, medical expense or the like.
Homelessness can also be expensive for cities. According to the grand jury report, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan said it costs taxpayers about $40,000 per year.
BETTER, BUT still homeless
Randi Bonilla’s newfound uncertainty arrived with the swift death of loved ones.
“First it was my father,” she said. “He died of lung cancer after I nursed him for 18 months in my home.”
Then it was her mother-in-law — who she said was more like her biological mom.
Then it was her son, who died in 2000 by suicide. He jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge.
“Three months after that my husband passed away from a bowel obstruction,” she said.
Four deaths within a year.
After that, Bonilla said she “lost it.” She developed complicated grief syndrome, which guided her poor decisions. She lost her home in foreclosure.
A recovering addict of two decades, she once again became addicted.
She attended grief groups and therapy but little seemed to work, she said. With so many deaths, her social network fractured. Many of her friends only furthered the avalanche of loss.
“Everybody kind of disappeared when the bad stuff starts happening,” she said. It left Bonilla feeling alone — just her and her only remaining son, 16 at the time.
Around 2015, she said her son chose to become homeless, and encouraged Bonilla to stay at Hospitality House. But that was an issue because Bonilla was not yet sober, and the nonprofit didn’t yet accept individuals addicted to drugs.
Continuing to battle her addiction, Bonilla said she was able to fully recover after seeing a therapist who helped her stop “medicating the grief.”
For the last couple of years, she has been at Hospitality House. Despite her resolving many issues, she still has a lingering problem: a lack of permanent shelter.
“So far, this is the most challenging time in finding housing,” she said. “I don’t know what the difference is between finding it before and finding it now — other than the prices have increased exponentially.”
STIGMA STIFLES ASSISTANCE
Availability, too, is nonexistent, she said.
Sometimes Bonilla said she’s competing with 30 people to rent a room.
Bonilla said she doesn’t want to apply for a Section 8 voucher because of its associated stigma.
“‘It must be bad people, the addicts and the alcoholics and the crazies,’” she said quoting landlords, “and that’s just not true.”
Tom Kellar, who spends much of his time helping Section 8 voucher holders, agreed. He said vouchers aren’t “the golden ticket” many believe them to be. That’s partially due to landlord bias.
“You can literally say to a Section 8 voucher holder ‘I don’t rent to Section 8,’” said Kellar. A landlord can also decline to accept a voucher holder without explanation, he added.
The stigma regarding Section 8 recipients leads people to believe they may be financially irresponsible with the assistance they receive, even though “the voucher holder never sees the money,” he said. (It goes straight from the government to the landlord.)
For now, Bonilla is still at Hospitality House. Most of the region’s low-income housing (about $400 to $550 per month) exists in places like Marysville, Placerville, Copperopolis and Ione, she said.
Being unemployed, and not being able to stay at the shelter during the day, she said she mostly takes the bus to the library or sits at a park.
“You’re constantly walking around town and back and forth and congregating sometimes,” she said, “which creates more problems” because police try to scatter those individuals.
Bonilla said she has hope for better days ahead. She said her son’s living situation has stabilized, and he’s expecting a baby — Bonilla’s first grandchild — with his girlfriend. They are all searching for a place to live together.
(Tom Kellar of Community Beyond Violence is the husband of The Union Staff Writer Liz Kellar).
To contact Staff Writer Sam Corey, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4219.
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