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The Homeless Crisis: Local agencies mull potential solutions

By David McNaughtan

Part 2 of a Series on the Homeless Crisis in the Region

The down and out may have up-and-coming options as the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency and the Amador County Homeless Task Force work diligently toward finding a solution to local vagrancy. Up for consideration are affordable housing developments, safe parking and low-barrier shelters.

A 201.37-acre plot of land off Wicklow Way in Jackson is being eyed as an affordable housing development as a long-term solution to the county’s housing problem – a 5- to 10-year plan. In the short term, a low-barrier shelter, or a shelter with minimal stipulations for admittance, would provide a centralized location to send people, potentially alleviating nuisance calls on local law enforcement.

“I think a designated space is a start,” stated District 4 Supervisor and ACHTF Chair Frank Axe.

If established, a low-barrier shelter would help satisfy state requirements restricting officials from removing vagabonds from public areas. Due to a United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in September 2018, upheld in April 2019, vagabonds cannot be held criminally liable for sleeping in public places and cannot be removed from public places without a safe alternative place to sleep.

Not everyone is fully onboard with a centralized location, voicing concerns that providing a place for vagrants to go could invite more from outside of the area. During a September 2018 Amador County Board of Supervisors meeting, John Plasse addressed the board, citing the combination of available transportation, meals and shelter as possible existing enticements.

“We’ve seen what happens when that type of behavior is encouraged and rationalized and allowed to go on,” Plasse told the board.

Plasse’s statements went along with others who addressed the board, requesting that any plan be carefully considered to help the homeless, but not encourage more vagabonds to the area. ATCAA Director of Housing Denise Cloward believes there must be a two-pronged approach – intervention and enforcement.

She stated that sending the vagrant population to a single, centralized place allows for a more cost-effective way to work and deal with the homeless. A single place better serves the homeless by connecting them with resources and services, while the enforcement side, through local law enforcement, helps to mitigate the crime element within the community.

“When people are ready to receive help, whatever that intervention looks like – skills to better paying jobs, counseling, domestic violence classes, mental or physical health care, or detox – a place of triage is a compassionate and financially sound way of approaching the issue at hand. We can create something small that is both effective and manageable,” Cloward said.

However, future plans for the homeless population aren’t limited to resources, services and housing. Officials acknowledged there may be part of the homeless population that refuse assistance, but will still need to be cared for while protecting the community. ACHTF consists of multiple agencies, including law enforcement, working toward a solution to the complexities of state regulations, services and the criminal element within the community.

The emergency shelter run by ATCAA in Jackson is consistently at 98 percent of capacity, often leaving no room for potential newcomers. Other local shelters only take in specific subsections of the vagrant population, like veterans, victims of domestic violence and the mentally ill. Cloward went on to state that 62 percent of those passing through the ATCAA shelter in the last two months have been under the age of 16.

“We’re seeing more families than we’ve ever seen before,” said Cloward. “This leaves no room for single individuals that are currently homeless.”

According to the latest Point in Time count conducted in January 2019, Amador County’s homeless population is sitting at approximately 214. Due to limited shelter availability, this leaves many without a place to stay. Other estimates place the vagabond population as high as 350. For the combined areas of Amador, Tuolumne, Calaveras and Mariposa counties, the total count came to 845.

The Point in Time counts come with a caveat, however. Many in the vagrant population don’t want to be counted, tend to be reclusive and much of the population moves around instead of remaining in one place. Additionally, the Department of Housing and Urban Development also requires the count to be conducted every January, a time when conditions and weather are difficult.

Axe believes the cause for so many homeless is the cost and availability of affordable housing in the county. Cloward tends to agree, citing high rental costs and long waiting lists. Axe and Cloward both stated the vagrancy quandary does not have a solitary cause or solution, citing seniors losing income, mental health, substance abuse, single-parent households unable to keep up with bills and medical complications as a few of the causalities.

“People need to start looking at this as a public health crisis,” said Cloward. “It’s going to become more of a visual problem. … If people don’t like what they see on their streets and in their communities, they need to get involved and be part of a community-wide solution.”

Cloward also said state funds come with regulations tailored to larger, more urban areas and Amador County, as well as surrounding counties, needs a program that takes into account the local struggles.

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