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Sanctioned Nevada County homeless camp has plenty of hurdles

Home builder Greg Zaller envisions a legal homeless encampment in Nevada County that would function as viable transitional place into his democratically run homeless and abuse recovery rental homes.

“It would take somebody off the street without that commitment that a house requires,” Zaller said.

Zaller owns one Grass Valley home that he rents to six women who are all recovering from either homelessness or abuse of one form or another, and he facilitated another building for both men and women in similar situations. In these drug-free CoLiving homes, residents are responsible for their rent and communal bills and make joint decisions on household expenditures as they learn skills toward independence.



“The CoLiving approach has worked so well we are now in the process of opening two more self-supporting homes and are looking for a fourth,” Zaller said in an email.

For those not ready for CoLiving-type living situations, Zaller said a government-approved homeless camp could serve as a viable stepping stone to ready dwellers for more permanent accommodations.




“The transitional camp is important because it offers the easiest access for the homeless,” Zaller said.

Nevada County has an estimated 500 homeless people and dozens of unsanctioned homeless camps speckled throughout its Sierra Nevada foothill forests, many in the outskirts of Grass Valley and Nevada City, according to Hospitality House, the area’s largest homeless advocacy group and soon-to-be operator of the county’s first permanent shelter.

The closest thing Nevada County has to a legal homeless camp is Nevada City’s no-camping ordinance. Passed by the town’s council in December 2012, the ordinance requires anyone sleeping on public property — namely homeless people — to garner a permit, requiring them to meet sanitation and waste disposal guidelines, among others.

Zaller is pursuing approval for a camp on land just outside Nevada City, he said. The Union is withholding the name of the property owner and its location at the owner’s request. Zaller also said he has one other location in mind that would be appropriate for a transitional camp.

The idea is not dissimilar to Hangtown Haven, Placerville’s legal camp for the homeless. Since August, 2012, approximately 30 people have lived at the camp, located on a privately owned acre on Broadway in Placerville, thanks to a temporary use permit set to expire in November, reported the Mountain Democrat. With that use permit approaching its end, Hangtown is reportedly eyeing a new Placerville location, the paper reported in June.

While the no-camping ordinance governs public property, private property is another matter. Zaller’s concept could be allowed in Nevada City through a temporary use permit, because the town has no zoned areas for camping, Brennan said.

“As much as people might want an area where you have several people camping, neighbors might not want the city to shortcut a deal that doesn’t protect their rights according to the land-use designations and zoning we have,” Brennan said. “We have to protect everyone’s rights.”

Zaller has met with Nevada City officials a few times about the camp, but Brennan said it has been months since he approached the city with remedies to some of the concerns.

“The other thing that concerns us is if it is not managed properly,” Brennan said. “Are there any hazards for fire or sanitation, which can spread to the community if not taken care of?”

For his part, Zaller said the estimated $2,000 use permit fee is a hurdle. Fees are calculated based on the amount of staff time that goes into facilitating the permit, Brennan said.

“I feel like we should have a partnership with the city, instead of them charging us for trying to solve a problem,” Zaller said.

One of Zaller’s main arguments for the camp is the fire risk of unregulated campers.

“This also provides a justification to cite illegal campers instead of just forcing them to move their camps and increasing the fire danger by driving them deeper into the woods,” he said, claiming that each smoke check mobilization is a $25,000 cost to the responding fire agency. Zaller also pointed to the enormous costs of fire suppression and noted the average cost of the government to provide a homeless individual services is $50,000.

But before any camp site is even considered, Zaller will need to outline how it would be governed, who would be responsible for ensuring compliance and how health and safety standards would be met, among other aspects, Brennan said.

“We’re happy to sit down and talk through those things,” Brennan said.

In the mean time, Zaller continues to hone the CoLiving households with Program Manager Barbara Franklin.

“Many of the homeless can be helped right now to become contributors, as we are seeing,” Zaller said. “As the program matures, more will take advantage of it because they will have seen it working.”

For information on CoLiving, the organization is hosting an open house at both its buildings July 27. CoLiving’s website is colivingnetwork.org, and Zaller can be reached at gregzaller@gmail.com and 530-265-2345.

To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email crosacker@theunion.com or call 530-477-4236.


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