Homeless people in Sonora seek respite during winter storm, county opens shelter
The first thing Steven Lee Campbell did after waking up Tuesday morning was shake the snow off his tent and make sure that others were safe in the homeless camp where he lives off Stockton Road in Sonora.
“I knew there would be problems, knew there would be people in trouble, so I went out and started looking,” said Campbell, 56, while standing outside the St. James Episcopal Church on North Washington Street shortly after 9 a.m.
Campbell said he fortunately didn’t encounter anyone who was hurt, but he counted four empty tents that were caved in by snow and an equal number of downed trees while walking along Stockton Road toward downtown Sonora.
The church wasn’t open in the morning due to the snow that made for dangerous road conditions. Tuolumne County government offices and several other churches in the city also were not open.
“I’d rather be homeless than driving on the highways right now,” Campbell said. “People could be dying out there.”
Liz Peterson, coordinator of the county Office of Emergency Services, sent a press release via email Tuesday afternoon announcing a warming center would open at 5 p.m. at the Discover Life Seventh-day Adventist Church at 40 Forest Road.
The center will be open through at least Thursday morning and beds will be available for people who need to stay overnight, the press release stated. No pets are allowed, and people are advised to bring their prescription medications or medical equipment if they need it.
Warming centers are mobilized under Phase III of the county’s extreme weather contingency plan, which was approved in September 2011. The shelters open when credible weather forecasts predict extremely cold or freezing temperatures for more than three days that could endanger human life.
The press release on Tuesday stated widespread power outages and below freezing temperatures expected over the next few days prompted the county to open the center.
Meanwhile, people like Campbell went to different places throughout the city to stay warm Tuesday morning.
Campbell said he decided to brave the snowy weather after being hunkered down in his tent for two straight days to stay dry from rain that preceded the winter storm.
Hazel Mitchell, co-founder of the Jamestown-based homeless aid organization Give Someone a Chance, went to the David Lambert Community Drop-In Center on Jackson Street after it opened at 11 a.m. to pick up food. Campbell helped her distribute at the homeless camps in town.
Mitchell said she knows of some people at the camps who had been unable to leave their tents since Friday to get food and other supplies.
The center is run entirely by volunteers and provides a place for homeless people to be from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, as well as food and supplies and gives access to computers for job searches, among other services.
Kathy Kile, a Jamestown resident who volunteers at the center, said they are unable to keep it open overnight because the building is owned by the county and requires volunteers to be there at all times while it’s open.
“The trouble with this weather is everything is shut down,” Kile said. “The churches that usually provide breakfast didn’t today, not that they didn’t want to, but because no one could make it there.”
Kile was preparing a spread of food for anyone who dropped into the center Tuesday that included spaghetti, goulash, pastries and day-old pizza from Little Caesar’s. She said no one was able to pick up more pizza that day due to the slick, dangerous roads.
Fewer than 10 people were at the center by about noon, minus several who had already come and gone. The center typically sees an average of about 15 to 25 people dropping in each day.
“The ones who are here today either have too much water in their tents, or are just looking for a hot meal,” she said. “A lot of people don’t even want to go out. They want to stay in their tents, or hopefully a warm place somewhere.”
Amber Elizabeth Paul, who was at the center Tuesday and helping to prepare the food, said she and her husband have been homeless for about two weeks and slept in their van the previous night in the parking lot of the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, also referred to as the Church of the 49ers.
Paul said the church, which hosts weekly community dinners on Mondays that are frequented by the homeless, had allowed them to stay in the parking lot overnight. She and her husband were planning to search for housing on the computers at the Lambert center on Tuesday.
A group of homeless men also gathered in the laundry on Stockton Road across from the Save Mart grocery store before the Lambert center opened.
Paulie Casey, 60, said they all live together outdoors in a location he declined to disclose and went to the laundry to stay warm. He’s been homeless since August and spent much of his adult life working in construction.
“We’re here for the heat and shelter, otherwise we’d be out there,” he said while pointing out the window to the snow-covered parking lot. “Today is a very bad day for many of us.”
Casey said he and others in the community who are homeless band together and look out for each during tough times like Tuesday. He also praised the Tuolumne County Enrichment Center, Lambert Center and all of the churches for the services they provide on a regular basis.
“They save our lives,” he said.
Casey said alcohol abuse was the root cause of why he became homeless, though he said that doesn’t mean anyone else “did this to themselves.”
“We’re not dirty people, we’re lost people,” he said. “You give any of these guys a job and they’ll do it.”
Robert Lefferts, 59, of Sonora, arrived at the laundry about 10:30 a.m. after taking Campbell for a cup of coffee.
Lefferts works part-time for the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency doing maintenance on its homeless shelter and transitional housing. He also regularly brings food to the homeless camps and volunteers at churches to serve meals.
He said he’s a homeless advocate because he lived outdoors in Sonora for more than five years before getting a place about four years ago at Sonora Community Estates, a Seventh-day Adventist retirement community.
“I can’t do a lot, but I can talk to them and pray for them,” he said. “They just need a little compassion and a little love.”
Lefferts said he believes the community could do more to help people who are homeless out of their plight, as opposed to planning for efforts like building tiny homes that could be years away.
“They got them to clean out the camps, we finally got a shower bus thanks to GSAC, but we need to do more than that,” he said. “We’ve got to love them. People didn’t give up on me.”
Story written for Union Democrat by Reporter Alex MacLean. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530. View story at the Union Democrat
The Tuolumne County Office of Emergency Services announced a warming center would be open beginning at 5 p.m. Tuesday through at least Thursday morning at the Discover Life Seventh-day Adventist Church at 40 Forest Road.
The center is open to the public and beds will be available for people who need to stay overnight. However, no pets are allowed and people are advised to bring their prescription medications or medical equipment if they need it.