Pauli Halstead: Homeless camps in Nevada County: A decade of environmental neglect |

Pauli Halstead: Homeless camps in Nevada County: A decade of environmental neglect

I was up at the Sugarloaf Mountain encampments near Nevada City last week. It’s a muddy environmental disaster up there with no running water so people can even wash their hands. There is minimal, if any, use of the county provided sanitation kits.

This week I spoke to a homeowner who lives on Sugarloaf. He and other neighbors are fed up with conditions caused by homeless campers. He said his house has been broken into, there have been several fires set, including two burned cars. There is also rampant drug use on the mountain. Neighbors are wondering why the no-camping ordinance has not been enforced. There have been no arrests for sanitation violations, littering and dumping, code violations (illegal structures and wood burning stoves). There’s no longer any excuse for letting conditions get so out of control on the mountain.

Nevada City has only one port-a-potty in town with a washing station. Servicing it has been hit or miss. We have no emergency plan in operation other than locking city bathrooms and telling people to stay home. Impossible for the homeless! Shockingly one local nonprofit is still feeding homeless people at a church in town. Social distancing is not being enforced. It’s imperative to educate folks to stay at least 6 feet apart.

In the future, if its not the coronavirus, it will be a bacterial infestation, or some other communicable illness, that goes from camp to camp and into the community. Homeless individuals are already in a very immune compromised situation. Our elected officials, and county government, (Health Department) have an obligation to protect the community. We have to get people into a safer and more managed environment, safe for them and safe for us. What good is it to provide services to the homeless via the HOME team if we cannot implement a sanctioned safe camp? Support services should be consolidated instead of spread out all over the place.

Moving people into housing will take years to accomplish, if ever. Most high-risk (drug addicted and mentally ill) homeless individuals will not succeed in the Housing First program, even if the housing were available. But there still needs to be an interim stabilization plan. We are facing another fire season in a few months. Safe camps, where people can cook and stay warm, are essential for our protection.

The level of environmental degradation I witnessed on Sugarloaf is unacceptable. There should be no more camping allowed on the mountain. It’s going to take all of us to demand the implementation of a plan so things don’t continue to degrade around Nevada City and Grass Valley. Yes, it’s going to be expensive, but the alternative of the continuing environmental devastation will have an economic impact for years to come unless we do something about it. The current situation is now worse than the hydraulic mining of the 1850s, which caused massive environmental damage and can still be witnessed at Malakoff Diggins. Is this what Nevada County will be known for in the future? We had an opportunity to do something to correct the problem but didn’t do it. Shame on us!

Today the communities of Nevada City and Grass Valley are exposed to COVID-19 virus. When the pandemic has passed, the ongoing disaster and environmental impacts of homelessness will continue unless we do something about it. In the last 10 years I have seen little political will to get people out of the illegal camps and into a safe and managed emergency outdoor shelter. This would be the least expensive option, much less than master leasing and having to provide ongoing support services at scattered sites throughout the community.

Sacramento is implementing Emergency Bridge Housing, an outdoor emergency shelter, as an interim solution. Folks will receive services on site, such as drug and mental health treatment, job training, and housing placement. Last week I forwarded a modified plan based on the Bridge Housing model to Ryan Gruver, Director of Health & Human Services, Alison Lehman, County CEO, and the Board of Supervisors. Hopefully they have read it. There was an article in The Union last week that the County was considering the Nevada County Fairgrounds as an option to get people into a more safely managed camp with services and security located on site.

Many of us have suggested a solution like this for years. It’s time to implement it! Actually it’s past time!

Pauli Halstead lives in Nevada City.

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