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Addressing Homelessness In Tuolumne County

The Board of Supervisors started addressing the local homeless issue in 2019. The issue came up on our radar because of the public outcry over vagrancy, crime, filth and polluted waterways affecting the overall quality of life in our community.

I was very reluctant to get involved with trying to solve what appeared to be an intractable problem. I only began to support the homeless conversation last year when I became aware of some local data which showed success when individuals who want help are provided services and housed in programs run here in Tuolumne County. For example, since January 2023, the county has successfully transitioned 86 people from homelessness to permanent housing. I also became aware of the results of a 2017 homeless task force within the Tuolumne County Sherriff’s Department which successfully addressed issues in Jamestown. In just one month, there was overwhelming success in cleaning up the streets and holding the homeless accountable while also getting them into services. With these successes, I decided to get involved and focus efforts towards these successful programs.

Meanwhile, the state of California has increased pressure and mandates to address homelessness. Many California Health & Human Services programs now include a housing component. This includes the CARE Act, Behavioral Health Bridge Housing and other social services programs.

Over the last year, there have been some painful discussions, debates and public meetings dealing with the purchase of a navigation center, transitional and permanent housing. Many times, I wanted to throw in the towel and vote NO for anything related to the homeless issue. Especially with my law enforcement background in probation and corrections as well as being a Supervisor who can appreciate the failure of the state on several fronts. California has spent a fortune on homelessness and yet the problem has only gotten bigger. However, some local success has continued to keep me engaged in the conversation.

I believe we should either locate the whole homeless program out in the “woods” away from everything, and bring in services, or we should put the program in or near the City of Sonora because that is where services are located. This includes behavioral health, public health, social services, medical facilities, grocery shopping, etc., all within walking distance. Putting the navigation center in Soulsbyville isn’t one of these options, so I voted no. I still think it’s a good program, just not a good location.

On November 7, 2023, I voted yes on the transitional houses and motel purchases as they are located in or near the City of Sonora. These facilities will be used as transitional and permanent housing as well as one unit specifically for veterans.

But there is still a missing piece: what do we do with those who do not want help, do not want accountability, do not want services, do not want a place to live and want to just keep being disorderly, committing crime and causing problems? It seems like a small number of these individuals are causing most of the problems.

That’s why during board meetings I keep bringing up the need for law enforcement encounters. I want these bad actors out of our community if they chose to break the law.

Over the last few years, laws have changed. For law enforcement to require homeless people to move out of an encampment, we must provide a place for them to go. In December our board will be reviewing a safe place for them to go in a “clean and clear” ordinance which could include a safe parking space on county owned property. The clean and clear ordinance would allow law enforcement to offer a homeless person a place to go. If they don’t go, they could be arrested for trespassing. An important tool we need.

Summary of where I stand now

Law Enforcement

If it were up to me, I would have implemented the law enforcement piece first. No one is complaining about helping the single mom who lost her job, fell on hard times and is now homeless. Or senior citizens or veterans facing similar challenges. In fact, most people want to see these people helped, especially if they really want to get back on their feet. On the other hand, people want to see something done about the knuckleheads who walk around drunk, pissing and craping on the streets, cussing at you when you tell them to pull their pants up as you walk by with your kids. They want to see those guys have law enforcement encounters where we offer them services and shelter, but if they refuse, they need to be arrested for trespassing. Then when they do it again, we arrest them again and again until they get help or get out. I want to see the 2017 Jamestown task force results at the county level. The clean and clear ordinance is coming before the Board of Supervisors in December 2023.

Permanent Housing

I have been and remain against housing homeless people permanently (forever home) in county-owned properties. I want to see these houses used to transition people into the private housing market. If it were a permanent option, there might not be an end to purchasing houses.

Homeless Dashboard

Over the last six-months, a homeless services dashboard has been put together and published. See https://www.tuolumnecounty.ca.gov/1505/Homeless-Services-Virtual-Bulletin-Board

This dashboard provides metrics to the public of the work being done and increases transparency in holding the Board of Supervisors accountable for the ultimate success or failure the program. I have requested Law Enforcement encounters be added as another metric to the dashboard (once we have an ordinance giving Law Enforcement the ability to offer a person a place to go or be arrested for trespassing.)

Red Line in the Sand

At the November 7th board meeting, after voting to purchase the 3 properties for transitional housing, I advised the board I would not be in favor of any more purchases moving forward (other than a possible situation in which a state mandate requires it.) I suggest we pause. We will not have all the houses up and running until 2025. Then in 2026, 2027 and 2028 we can look back and evaluate. If we are mitigating the issue, successfully transitioning people back into contributing members of society and getting them placed back into the private housing market – great! Then we should not need any more houses. If it’s not working, then we definitely don’t need any more houses. And based on our numbers, we don’t need 20-30 houses, I think we have what we need now.

We owe it to you to do something meaningful and successful, but not overkill it and bloat the situation like bureaucracy is good at doing. I want to look back and show success, and I believe this could be successful with the staff we have and a limited amount of housing to transition people through. Having limited bed space is an incentive to move people through and not let them settle. For some it may be weeks, or months, for others healing from drug addiction it could take their brain several years to heal.

Moving Forward

Nonprofits

We have too many nonprofits with big hearts enabling the homeless. It’s one thing to give them dinner and send them on their way. It’s quite another thing to feed them, house them, work with and counsel them and start instilling personal responsibility and accountability. I would love to see nonprofits work collaboratively with the county to provide services for those who want help and accountability through a program.

Churches

The Bible calls the church to this arena and I would like to challenge the churches to play a role in this endeavor. Since the county appears to be taking on the lead role, I would appreciate churches meeting with our homeless coordinator Michael Roberson and myself in the near future to find ways to help. There are some simple options such as sponsoring a room at the navigation center. Integration with existing faith-based recovery programs should also be explored. Celebrate Recovery comes to mind.

Community Engagement

Several folks in the community have empty rooms in their home, would love the company and could use the financial help from renting out a room or two. I would like to pair homeowners who have space and a heart to take in a person which has been vetted and is transitioning through a program. This would be similar to the foster care system. I intend to explore this as an option into the future.

Finally, I would like to thank the community for your engagement, especially those who are skeptical about moving forward in this arena. As a result of these conversations with your board and staff, we have compiled a list of Q&A’s as well as other information. I have found 98% of the information our community is looking for is addressed with the literature we have compiled. Please take the time to review at https://www.tuolumnecounty.ca.gov/1505/Homeless-Services-Virtual-Bulletin-Board

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