Jim Hemig: Homelessness town hall follow up | TheUnion.com

Jim Hemig: Homelessness town hall follow up

Jim Hemig Publisher The Union
John Hart/jhart@theunion.com | The Union

Thursday afternoon Dr. Robert Marbut shared his learnings, experience and recommendations regarding homelessness to a packed house of more than 200 people at the Center for the Arts and to many more listening live on KVMR radio.

Marbut was invited to speak at the request of Greg Zaller and myself, since he was already going to be in Auburn Thursday night. This town hall-style meeting was free to our community, thanks to Marbut’s generous contribution of his time and the City of Grass Valley’s effort to secure the Center for the Arts.

Marbut, Zaller and I spent Thursday morning driving around western Nevada County meeting many of the people leading the efforts to support our homeless community. We visited with Divine Spark, Sierra Roots and Opportunity Village in Nevada City, as well as Hospitality House and the police chief and lieutenant in Grass Valley. These visits provided some local information to help Marbut direct his presentation and allowed me to learn more as well.

I was impressed to see the turnout for this meeting. More important, the diversity was noteworthy. Elected officials from Grass Valley, Nevada City and Nevada County, both city’s police chiefs and officers, nonprofit homeless leaders and supporters, community business leaders, concerned community members and homeless people attended.

The town hall audience size and engagement showed me this is an important topic. So important that holding one two-hour session shouldn’t be the beginning and end of this discussion.

I wasn’t surprised by Marbut’s presentation. He was well-spoken, well-informed and articulate. And his message was consistent with the many prior emails and phone calls we exchanged. I wasn’t the only one to see this. I had many people after the session thank me for making this happen. They said they felt the message and information was important. One person, someone I now call a friend, said she was originally skeptical and now believes this meeting was the right idea.

Marbut also walked the political tightrope well, explaining how both the far right and far left homeless plans do not work. He explained how bits and pieces of both plans would be the right course for reducing homelessness.

I found it hard to argue with Marbut’s recommendation. He said we need to truly know who our homeless are. Their names, genders, ages, length of time being homeless, any personal challenges, etc. in order to make a plan to help. All this information needs to be collected and collated throughout the community and from all sources, including county, law enforcement and nonprofit organizations.

He also stressed the importance of a 24/7 homeless shelter that included all the support services — food, clothing, medical, county and state services — something we do not have in Nevada County. He mentioned the success of communities with such shelters.

I can’t do his presentation justice in my short column. Suffice it to say, I agreed with much of what he said. And I could tell from the audience feedback, and the many emails and phone calls after, I wasn’t alone.

However, even with what I thought was a common sense approach and crowd agreement, some of the folks attending totally disagreed and spoke out against what he said. One person specifically thought Marbut was saying not to feed people and that he was insinuating homeless should starve. Marbut’s plan includes serving 19-21 healthy meals per week, so I’m not sure where that comment came from. It just goes to show that no matter what the topic is, or how clearly you think you communicate it, some people only hear what they want to hear. Some folks became defensive on social media after the presentation claiming Marbut took cheap shots by saying our community doesn’t truly know our homeless population, and we need to in order to solve it. I was there for the pre-town hall meeting visits of the local homeless supporters and heard the wide range of ages, genders and personal challenges of our area homeless. I also heard, “I don’t know” from some regarding demographics. I was there.

I even talked to a homeless gentlemen in his RV trailer behind a gas station Thursday morning, and he said during the last point-in-time count, homeless folks avoided the count for fear of repercussions.

The folks who provide the services don’t have all the answers. But that’s OK. How could they? The county isn’t connected to every local nonprofit (and there are many), and, in turn, these folks aren’t connected to all the police officers and sheriff deputies. It’s OK not to have all the answers. Being defensive doesn’t help. Working together toward gaining better data does.

Instead of fighting over counts, what is more important to me is that it appears both Hospitality House and Salvation Army’s Booth Family Center will be losing funding in 2016. That means 90 current homeless beds could be gone at some point next year. So many of the people we see wandering around the Glenbrook Basin during the day will then be looking for places to sleep at night as well.

The meeting and after-chatter had some emotionally charged moments, but, in general, everyone was polite and wanted to learn more, which was my greatest hope for this public meeting.

Following the meeting, I received many emails and phone calls. Most people liked Marbut’s ideas and recommendations. But they also asked, “Now what?”

The town hall audience size and engagement showed me this is an important topic. So important that holding one two-hour session shouldn’t be the beginning and end of this discussion.

I’d like to encourage our community to write your thoughts in a letter to the editor or an Other Voices column and submit them to The Union. I’d like to hear from the community on what they thought about Marbut’s ideas.

I’d also like to hold several focus groups to discuss the next steps. If you’re interested in that as well, please let me know.

I believe we have an opportunity and a responsibility to help both people in need and our community and to push for the best solutions possible to reduce homelessness. Will you join me?

To contact Publisher Jim Hemig, email jhemig@theunion.com or call 530-477-4299.

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