Jim Hemig: Out of sight, out of mind?
“That person is homeless. Those two are homeless. And that woman over there is homeless,” said Grass Valley Police Officer Clint Lovelady, as we drove around the Glenbrook Basin Safeway parking lot in Grass Valley.
Tuesday morning, I rode with Officer Lovelady, getting an education on the Grass Valley Police Department’s Strategic Response Team’s progress with both the homeless and the local nonprofits and agencies who support them.
Lovelady drove me through portions of Grass Valley, pointing out a few homeless camps as well as meeting a few homeless folks in the Brunswick Road area.
I’ll be honest, I don’t think about homeless people very often. Probably like most of us, the topic only crosses my mind when I see somebody that’s obviously homeless, or I read about something related in the newspaper.
As the saying goes, out of sight, out of mind. However, driving around with Officer Lovelady, I discovered there are more homeless folks around than I realized. I just wasn’t aware they were homeless. Most look like an average shopper or worker. At least in the Glenbrook Basin area, which likely has something to do with its proximity to the Hospitality House shelter.
Hospitality House has 54 beds, is usually full, and feeds and houses people from 4:30 p.m. until 7 a.m. So the folks staying at Hospitality House tend to wander each morning through the basin heading toward jobs, the bus stop or just hanging out at the stores and restaurants.
I have helped serve the evening meal to guests at Hospitality House three times now.
So I’m familiar with our local homeless support, but I don’t always see the impact in front of me.
Greg Zaller, a local homeless advocate, and I have been chatting about homeless issues on and off for the last year. We even wandered into the brush last month hoping to chat with a few campers. To our surprise, we didn’t see one person in the forest behind the Flyers gas station at Brunswick Road and Sutton Way, which is where we were told a camp was located. We did find plenty of trash: wine and water bottles, Starbucks cups and a couple Lazy Boy-style leather recliners.
But we know they are here. During the last point-in-time homeless count on Jan. 26, 2015, there were 279 homeless people in Nevada County. The total of 279 is lower than the previous year’s count, which on the surface seems like an improvement. But when I ask my contacts at Hospitality House, GVPD and others about this, they all indicate the actual number is likely higher. I hear maybe in the 400-500 range, with about 50 people living in campsites. But it’s hard to tell. Being homeless might mean parking a car somewhere to sleep, couch surfing, staying at the Hospitality House or other shelters or even camping in the brush. Getting an accurate count is no easy feat.
Even as an estimate, 300, 400 or maybe 500 doesn’t seem like a lot, especially in a county of over 90,000 people. But I saw probably 20 or more homeless people in just 30 minutes with Officer Lovelady’s help. We had a chance to chat with several as he reminded them they couldn’t just loiter in the grocery store parking lot.
One woman mentioned she was 72 years old and was staying at the Hospitality House. She doesn’t have a car or a place to go. But she does receive about $1,400 from Social Security each month. She receives too much money to qualify for Section 8 housing, but doesn’t have enough to get an apartment. She is caught in the middle.
We met a young man in his 20s also staying at Hospitality House. He was heading to work. He also doesn’t make enough to afford a car or a place to live. Housing here is in short supply, particularly for low-income folks.
And shortly after I returned to work, a woman with black tar on her face, dirty hair, clothes falling off and no shoes walked into The Union’s office.
She complained about treatment at the Hospitality House and by the police. But I could tell she clearly had mental health issues and needed help beyond just a simple meal and a place to stay.
Another impact of the homeless population presented itself only one day later. On Wednesday morning, we saw smoke coming from the hills just above the Safeway parking lot. Yes, you guessed it. A suspected homeless campfire got away from someone. City and county fire departments put it out quickly, but you can imagine the damage it could have caused.
What is to be done to help our area’s homeless? Apparently we need to do something. Maybe it’s providing more shelters to avoid camps? Or having a structured plan for the Hospitality House guests so they don’t just wander the streets during the day?
Possibly removing all the shopping benches so there is nowhere to loiter? Or should we just put the folks that don’t wish to become active members of our community on a bus out of town?
Everyone I talk to has opinions or ideas. The good news is, we are not in a vacuum. Others are trying new approaches that may supplement our own. Placer County specifically has recently contracted with national homelessness advisor, Dr. Richard Marbut. Marbut is in Auburn for a fundraiser and, thanks to Greg Zaller, has offered to tour our county and share his seven-point homelessness plan for free.
I believe there is an opportunity to learn more. So The Union and KVMR are planning to co-host a two-hour town hall forum on homelessness in western Nevada County, featuring a one-hour presentation by Marbut from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 10, at the Center for the Arts. This forum will be free and open to the public.
The truth is, our area homeless are not out of sight. And we shouldn’t allow them to be out of mind.
We, as a community, should pool our resources and best ideas, as well as learn from others, and put a plan together to make a difference. The upcoming town hall forum could be an opportunity to bring the dialogue on local homelessness up a level.
To contact Publisher Jim Hemig, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4299.
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