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The high cost of homelessness in Nevada County

Tom Durkin
Staff Writer

Almost 25% of Nevada County’s population is over 65 and at high risk of dying from COVID-19.

That’s 25,000 people. There are thousands more with compromised health and/or unsafe living conditions who are also at risk.

As for people with compromised health, unsanitary living conditions and/or who are over 65, “That’s pretty much most of the homeless population,” said Brendan Phillips, Nevada County’s housing resource manager.

To help 15,000 of the state’s growing population of more than 150,000 homeless people, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration has introduced Project Roomkey.

According to an April 3 press release from the governor’s press office, Project Roomkey “… means state and local governments will receive up to 75 percent cost-share reimbursement from FEMA for hotel and motel rooms, including wraparound supports such as meals, security, and custodial services. Essential behavioral health and health care services will also be provided ….”

Homeless people are a “critically vulnerable” cohort who are both at risk for catching COVID-19 and for spreading it, Phillips said.

Most government and medical authorities agree it’s in everybody’s interest to give homeless people a safe place to shelter during the pandemic emergency.

Using funds from pre-existing programs and from Newsom’s Project Roomkey initiative, Phillips said, “We’ve placed over 60 people since March 18 in local (motels).”

Administered by the county, Project Roomkey is supplementing the already established efforts of local nonprofits and the multi-agency HOME Team to place the most vulnerable homeless and potentially homeless people in motels on an emergency or transitional basis, Phillips said.

The HOME (Homeless Outreach and Medical Engagement) Team “consists of eight team members: four outreach workers, two housing navigators, one peer supporter, and one registered nurse,” according to Nevada County’s website.

Most agencies supporting homeless people were already using motels to house clients on a temporary basis. Funds from Project Roomkey and private donations have expanded their ability to protect at-risk people during the pandemic.

“We serve everybody. We provide food. We provide shelter,” said Paul Cogley, executive director of Sierra Roots, a nonprofit that serves Nevada County’s most down-and-out individuals.

Best known for providing a low-barrier warming shelter during life-threatening winter weather, Sierra Roots has placed 21 people in motels since the March 19 shutdown order, Cogley said.

Phillips stressed motels are mostly used as a short-term solution while housing navigators work to find more suitable transitional or permanent housing, which usually happens fairly quickly.

“We’ve never had more than 25 (in motels) at once,” he added.

“It’s really expensive,” explained Stephanie Fisher, executive director of Community Beyond Violence. Rooms cost more than $100 per night, she said.


Hospitality House, which runs Utah’s Place homeless shelter, has placed some of its most at-risk shelter clients in motels for the duration of the pandemic emergency. The idea is to improve social distancing in the shelter — and if there is a COVID-19 outbreak, fewer people will be exposed.

“Between March 16 when we enacted our emergency pandemic plans and May 31, we have housed 23 people. We anticipate housing more people this week and next as well,” Joe Naake said in a June 6 email.

Naake is the outreach manager for Hospitality House and a member of the HOME Team.

At great expense of money, time and effort, a small army of staff and volunteers from multiple nonprofits and county agencies are mobilized to deliver three meals a day and a panoply of supportive services to people at Utah’s Place and in the motels, Naake said.

The guests have a behavior contract that includes a requirement to shelter in place.

“Some people are having a hard time with that. That’s our biggest concern,” said Mike Dent, director of Housing and Child Support Services for Nevada County.

“Some guests are struggling with the shelter-in-place order,” confirmed Nancy Baglietto, executive director of Hospitality House. “Our staff has been there for them, offering peer support, mental health counseling, and entertainment, such as arts and crafts and even movie nights, to help with this ongoing stay-in-place order.”

Even though the community is beginning to reopen, the shelter-in-place rule is still in effect for high risk individuals in the motels and Utah’s Place.

“I can’t praise the motels enough,” Phillips said. “They trust us. We trust them. They are looking out for our folks.”


Fisher reported nine adults and three children were placed in motels in February and March for 16 nights. In April and May 15 adults and four children we sheltered for 33 nights total, she said.

Dent noted Project Roomkey was a financial lifeline for the motels. “They suffered greatly” when the statewide shutdown was ordered.

“Definitely, of course,” the income from the county is good, said Braulio Lee, manager of the Coach N’ Four Motel in Grass Valley. He said he was hosting four homeless guests as of last Friday.

Lee went on to say, “It helps everybody who’s outdoors who needs to be indoors. We want to keep them safe.”

As a supplement to Project Roomkey, the state is deploying at least 1,305 trailers to house more homeless people.

“I made a request for trailers,” Phillips said. “They said no. They gave us money to buy trailers instead.”

That money is being channeled through FREED, he said. FREED is a nonprofit that assists disabled and elderly people with independent living.

“We’ve been working closely with FREED,” Ashley Quadros, development director for Hospitality House, wrote in an email Monday. A trailer is in storage, waiting to be located in a trailer park. “We expect our homeless resident to be housed likely within the week.”

Dent acknowledged the fact that hundreds of people in the county are living illegally in trailers because they can’t afford the expensive space rentals and fees charged by trailer parks. He said he’s concerned elderly, low-income citizens are being priced out of legal trailer parks. Nevertheless, the county will only place trailers for homeless citizens in authorized parks.

Phillips offered a glimmer of hope for an increase in affordable housing. He cautioned he only has anecdotal evidence, but, “I feel like there might be Airbnbs coming online as ADUs.”

Accessory Dwelling Units, also known as granny flats, have been hotly debated in recent years as a means of addressing the affordable housing drought.

Phillips explained that since Airbnbs are already approved for habitation, the conversion to ADUs would be relatively painless. A year-long lease guaranteed by a nonprofit could be more attractive than the increasingly risky, regulated and seasonal Airbnb market.

Lack of affordable housing is a major cause of homelessness.

It’s not over yet, but Phillips concluded on an upbeat note: “I feel really good about the work we’ve done. We helped so many people in the last three months.”


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Tom Durkin is a staff writer with The Union.

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