Monday, August 4, 2014

(Nevada County) Grand jury: panhandler problem our of control

June 28, 2014
The Union of Grass Valley
By Dave Brooksher

In a report released Friday, the Nevada County grand jury said panhandlers, vagrants and transients have been identified as a blight on our community.
The homeless population in Nevada County has obviously grown, they say, and the apparent criminal element and behavior within that population is costing law enforcement and other local agencies.
The grand jury went on to recommend a multiagency effort to enforce existing laws and reduce the number of homeless encampments in the community.
They’ve also advised the county to direct its Information Technology Department to implement tracking and reporting systems to enable city and county departments to determine how much money is being spent on problems associated with the homeless community.
Based on statements from one unnamed interviewee “who is extremely experienced in working with this population,” the grand jury found as fact that:
 “— Most PVTs (panhandlers, vagrants and transients) are males with drug and alcohol addiction problems.
— They do not take responsibility for their condition and do not seek treatment.
— Their behavior is not healthy to themselves or our community.
— Their camps resemble a third world site with dangerous trash and potential health issues for the community as a whole.
— The majority of PVTs are not willing to be rehabilitated.”
The identity and qualifications of that interviewee were not included in the grand jury’s report.
The report did, however, include several attempts to quantify the homeless community’s financial impact on the local economy.
“Retail businesses have incurred losses in excess of $200,000 due to theft, vandalism and shoplifting,” the report said.
Four Grass Valley businesses, three of which are located near a known homeless camp, estimated their annual losses due to vandalism and theft at $10,000, $20,000, $50,000 and $100,000.
The report does not, however, include any evidence proving the link between these losses and the presence of homeless people, panhandlers, vagrants or transients.
Hard data on costs to local government agencies was not available in most cases.
The Nevada County Consolidated Fire District estimated that calls for service associated with transients cost the district roughly $90,000 per year.
The fire district logged between 250-300 calls related to “PVT activities” in 2013 involving medical calls and fires in encampments, Dumpsters or abandoned houses.
Estimates for local law enforcement were provided, but they were derived by multiplying the number of calls for service by the average number of hours required for each call and the average hourly salary for responding officers.
Real accounting of the costs incurred by law enforcement was unavailable.
The report did provide information about the number of calls for service received.
In 2013, Grass Valley logged 597 calls for service that used the words “panhandler, transient, homeless or squatter.” The Nevada County Sheriff’s Office received 138 calls for service involving the word “transient.”
The Nevada City Police Department provided the most comprehensive numbers in the report. It estimates the annual cost of responding to homeless issues at $36,400.
That was based on the average labor rate per hour, time spent investigating each call and booking any suspects arrested and an average of 15-20 calls per week “under the transient category.”
The grand jury’s list of facts also says that unidentified officials, business owners and law enforcement officers stated they believe the efforts to help homeless people in our community are actually making things worse.
“Officials stated that the community is too accommodating to the PVT population, which attracts them to the area,” according to the report. “A variety of elected officials, business owners and law enforcement personnel agree that some feeding and shelter programs attract additional PVTs by accommodating their needs.”
Cindy Maple, executive director of Hospitality House in Grass Valley, disagrees.
“I think that we are a part of the solution; we are working every day to get people stable and housed,” Maple said. “I think without providing the services that we provide, the situation in the community would be much worse.”
Maple says that due to limited resources, Hospitality House focuses on helping locals. Out-of-county residents are only taken in under special circumstances.
“The only time we would take them is if they’re fragile, if they’re potentially older or if it’s a family escaping a DV (domestic violence) situation,” Maple said.
Maple does, however, agree with the grand jury’s assertion that the homeless population is growing.
“They’re still feeling the effects of the economic downturn,” she said.
“We have a lot of folks who are working part time and not earning a living wage. It’s not enough to afford housing. We had a person recently collect cans to pay for medication. It’s really rough out there for people.”
They are not out-of-towners coming to Nevada County to take advantage of local services, however. Maple said growth in the local homeless population is primarily fueled by local residents who lose their homes.
“What this report misses is looking at the root cause of the panhandling problem,” Maple said.
The grand jury report also faults the Nevada County Community Development Agency for not deploying code compliance officers to homeless encampments more frequently. The absence of sewer services, clean water or proper housing is a violation of county code that they say could be more vigorously enforced.
The CDA did not respond to The Union’s request for comment by deadline.
To contact Staff Writer Dave Brooksher, email or call 530-477-4230.

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