Friday, July 28, 2017
[Placer County] Grand jury: County made ‘no substantial progress’ on homelessness
In a report released in June, the Placer County grand jury created a soft deadline for the county’s growing homelessness problem, recommending county officials find a location for at least one permanent homeless shelter by March 2018.
Findings in the June 23 report outlined three possible options: permanently establish Auburn’s DeWitt Center shelter, which opened as a temporary facility in 2015; find a different location for the facility; or decide against a 24/7 emergency shelter altogether.
The report also asked the county to develop and publish a comprehensive strategy to address the problem. The county would not directly respond to media questions about the report, since it has yet to formally respond to the grand jury.
A longstanding issue
The latest grand jury findings came 13 years after the Placer Consortium on Homelessness presented a 10-year strategic plan before the Placer County Board of Supervisors. According to clerks with the board, the county never approved or adopted the plan. The grand jury report states otherwise, and the jury did not respond to a request for clarification by press time.
In 2014, as the initial plan was running out, the county contracted a national expert on homelessness, Dr. Robert Marbut, to conduct a study of the area. County spokesman Chris Gray-Garcia said this is the main resource the county has used for guidance.
Marbut said his report suggested one or two permanent, 24/7 emergency facilities in Placer County, with drawbacks and benefits to either: one shelter would be more cost-effective, while having two would cater to the different populations in Placer County.
But instead of moving toward a more permanent solution, the county has made “no substantial progress in resolving the issue,” according to the grand jury report.
Small steps toward big solutions
The county has taken measures to chip away at the issue by establishing programs to help those with mental illness, addictions and unemployment. The grand jury report also noted the county has assigned four sheriff’s deputies and a probation officer to work with homeless individuals. In January, the board of supervisors approved a proposal to allow shelters to be built on land with heavy commercial zoning, creating more potential shelter locations.
It has also provided funding to both temporary shelters in the county. According to the jury report, the county provides about $45,500 per month to the DeWitt Center shelter and last week, according to Gray-Garcia, the county gave $275,000 to The Gathering Inn.
“I’ve received nothing but support,” said The Gathering Inn’s CEO Keith Diederich. “Funding, certainly, but also convening meetings where providers are working together.”
Marbut, who has visited Placer County three times since his study in 2014, said he is impressed with the DeWitt Center shelter’s work. Before its establishment, he recalled seeing 125 to 150 people in streetside encampments in Auburn. But the need is outgrowing the building’s infrastructure — the facility is aging and has no industrial-size kitchen.
“It’s a good Band-Aid,” Marbut said. “Things are better, but it’s very temporary. Both places are overwhelmed.”
According to Gray-Garcia, the county is considering three locations for shelters: South Placer, greater Auburn and the Lake Tahoe region. Some county-owned property near the Santucci Justice Center in Roseville is already undergoing environmental review for possible development. However, the feasibility of these locations — environmentally, financially, politically, culturally — is yet to be determined.
Challenges close to home
Despite the county’s efforts to establish multiple short-term solutions to homelessness, several obstacles stand in the way. Gray-Garcia said the 2004 plan from the Placer Consortium on Homelessness came before the 2008 financial crisis, which brought unforeseen challenges to the area. According to Marbut, the issue goes deeper, on both national and local levels.
Locally, Marbut identified two distinct “cultures” in the north and south regions of Placer County. Like the general population, homeless individuals identify with either region, which can complicate transporting transient people.
“People are really tightly knit to their local community, including the homeless community,” Marbut said Monday.
California’s development regulations also create a unique challenge statewide. Between permits, studies and other requirements, Marbut said the building process is much longer here than elsewhere in the country. Anticipating a lengthy development procedure, Marbut said his 2014 study suggested opening temporary shelters and immediately begin looking for a permanent facility.
“If you want to get to where you really start to fix it, get the long-term plan in the hopper,” he said.
Stats over sides
At this point, the issue is snagged on politics — not just for the county but nationwide.
According to the grand jury report, residents close to the DeWitt Center shelter in Auburn have complained that the facility is too close to schools and businesses. Though the shelter does not allow weapons, and tests for alcohol and drug use, residents transient populations are often viewed as unsafe or unstable. Homelessness also tends to be an urban problem, which means rural areas will push the issue to cities, Marbut pointed out. Cities resist, since residential areas, businesses and schools are more spaced out in rural communities.
This not-in-my-backyard phenomenon is not unique to Placer County, Marbut said. He added that money is another point of debate — which part of the county receives funding over other areas.
Once these two obstacles are surpassed, he said, the smaller details like shelter design and operation often come together easily. His 2014 study stresses that decisions should not be made on anecdotes, but rather on hard data that paints an accurate picture of the problem.
“(These) are the big hangups that will stop all action if they don’t get worked out,” he said. “These things come down to politics, not data. Once you pick a side, things become very easy after that.”
July 17, 2017
By MacKenzie Myers