Tom Durkin: Housing Now! – a call to action |

Tom Durkin: Housing Now! – a call to action

Allowing homeless people to languish in the streets and camps says more about us as a community than it does about them. It’s an embarrassment, and it scares the tourists.

Actually, our local nonprofits are going above and beyond to assist homeless people. It’s the painfully slow bureaucracy of city, county, state and federal government losing ground to the growing homeless emergency that is making us look bad.

Perhaps it’s that politicians and bureaucrats have bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens to go home to every night. It must lull them into a sense of complacency. The “homeless problem” will still be there tomorrow.

That is cold comfort to the hundreds of homeless people who don’t have a bedroom, bathroom or kitchen, much less a home, to go to tonight.


My son, a combat veteran, says, “It’s not a low-level conflict if you’re in it.”

Similarly, it’s not a homeless “problem” if you’re homeless. It’s a homeless crisis.

If my son came under fire, he could call in immediate air support.

Here in Nevada County, if you find yourself homeless, you might be asked to fill out a form to get on a waiting list. Utah’s Place is at capacity, and we’ve run out of money for motel rooms.

If half of Alta Sierra burned down, the county would, we hope, declare a housing emergency, mobilize the Office of Emergency Services, and waive regulations and red tape to expedite assistance to people who have lost everything.

As for the plight of the hundreds of Nevada County homeless people, it’s locked up tight in the labyrinth of subcommittees of bureaucracy of the Continuum of Care (CoC) of the Homeless Resource Council of the Sierras (HRCS).

Long story short, the CoC decides where the money goes, and it does it at its own chosen speed with even less of a sense of urgency than the county.


Because I’ve been homeless and because I won’t shut up, I am a member of the Nevada County CoC Shelter Subcommittee (at the bottom level of the HRCS CoC hierarchy of subcommittees).

For the record, I am speaking only for myself here, not the subcommittee.

The Shelter Subcommittee is comprised of concerned citizens and people from community nonprofits that work directly with homeless folks, including Hospitality House/Utah’s Place, Sierra Roots and Spirit Peer Empowerment Center.

A couple weeks ago, in a brief moment of madness, we discussed what a “Housing Now” program would look like if we set an all-hands-on-deck deadline of July 15.

We would work to get as many homeless people as possible off the streets and out of the camps and cars. Motels, trailers and accessory dwelling units, and most important, a sanctuary community campground(s) would all be used.

Homeless people have been around for years. What’s the hurry? One word: Fire!

Just one escaped campfire or a car with a catalytic converter parked on dry grass, and we really could lose Alta Sierra or Morgan Ranch or Nevada City.

The devastating 49er Fire of 1988 (144 homes, 219 other structures, 35,000 acres) was accidentally started by a homeless man. We’ve already had several escaped fires this year.

As proposed by the Shelter Subcommittee, the Safe Sanctuary Shelter Project would be a community-managed campground where chronically homeless people could legally camp and receive critical support services to help them transition to suitable housing.

In addition to the sanctuary, I am proposing — as I have for the last three years — the county declare a moratorium on enforcement of laws and codes barring people from living in trailers, recreational vehicles and accessory dwelling units on private land, because that’s exactly what many people are doing regardless of the law.

Affordable housing is essentially nonexistent. A whole underground housing market has evolved out of dire necessity. The county needs to accept that, at least until true affordable housing becomes available.


It is unfair to say the county and the CoC have done nothing about homelessness, but it is fair to say they haven’t, and aren’t, doing enough fast enough.

When the county found out I was about to write about the frustration we feel on the front line, I got a friendly call from Mike Dent, director of housing and child support services.

Mike wanted to tell me about all the good things the county and the CoC have done and are doing for homeless people in the coming months and years. It’s an impressive list.

Mike said we have to trust the process. I suggested that’s a great topic for another column.

This column is about Housing Now. We must commit to stop treating homelessness as a routine, deferred-maintenance problem. We must confront homelessness as the immediate public health emergency it is.

People’s lives are being forever scarred by homelessness, especially the children and teens. The longer they have to wait, the worse it gets. Time is of the essence.

I don’t trust the process. It’s too slow and not enough. We need the political will and community buy-in to find a safe ground campsite this summer and open up the thousands of empty trailers, RVs and ADUs to the landlords and renters who can strike a fair deal.

Yesterday is too late, and tomorrow isn’t soon enough. Housing. Now!

Tom Durkin is a freelance writer, editor and photographer in Nevada County. He is a member of the Shelter Subcommittee of the Nevada County CoC, a subcommittee of HRCS, but the opinions expressed here are strictly his own. He may be contacted at

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