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Study Necessary Before Facility For Homeless

The decision by Tuolumne County to acquire a facility to address needs of the homeless has once again become a question of site availability rather than addressing the long-term needs of the homeless.  Advocates voice three questions, “If not Here, Where? If not now, When? And if not this, What?”. The current proposed site is presented as a last-ditch effort to help our homeless population. The real question, however: Will this site truly serve the needs of the target homeless population and benefit our entire community without compromising or sacrificing the needs and financial well-being of tax-paying residents?  I believe this can be answered by the County conducting a proper independent study to determine how a location can best serve our entire community. Randomly selecting sites (Jamestown, Columbia, and now Soulsbyville) simply because grant funds exist to purchase a building is not the answer. This is not the NIMBY issue project advocates typically cite. This Soulsbyville site is simply the wrong location for a homeless center. We need disciplined investigation and due diligence before potentially making a mistake that will have long-term cost consequences for all Tuolumne County residents.

The Homeless Situation and Proposed Navigation Center

We are all too well aware of the serious long-term homeless problem we face.  This recognition commands a long-term, well-defined solution that should involve homeless advocates, City and County representatives, and other community leaders and representatives to address the needs and resources of all stakeholders.  To date, the County has proposed to a Navigation Center in three different communities, apparently based solely on the availability of grant funding and property for sale.  In each case, serious drawbacks and limitations were recognized immediately despite County officials suggesting otherwise.  The current proposed Soulsbyville location, while with two very nice buildings, is in an established middle-class neighborhood with no supporting infrastructure — no public transportation, no medical, limited fire, limited law enforcement, no food services, stores or any other help to meet the needs of the homeless.  County representatives state these needs can be addressed in the future, but they provide no specifics for achieving this.

Why should we be skeptical of the County presentations on controversial issues? Let’s not forget two relatively recent projects the County pitched but lacked due diligence and have turned out to be costly mistakes.

  1. The decision to purchase the Jamestown mine in 2012 at a cost of $2.7M as “an industrial development site” only to learn that it is a toxic pit that the County must spend huge amounts on for the infinite treatment of contaminated water from the Harvard mine and the inability to use the former tailings pond for anything let alone an industrial site. And let’s not forget the multimillion-dollar expense of closing said tailings facility to meet environmental regulations.
  2. Or the more recent decision to build a juvenile detention facility for $20M based on a grant for capital costs but without enough funding to operate the facility.

I want to state that I have been a homeowner in Tuolumne County for 40 years and that my home is not in the Soulsbyville area. I did, however, attend the morning and evening walk-throughs of the proposed Soulsbyville Navigation Center site and listened to both advocates and opponents. I also attended the Board of Supervisors Meeting on April 11 to listen to County representatives and public comment.

The County presentation was seriously lacking in several areas. Most importantly, I believe the focus should be on three issues.

  1. This facility location is simply wrong no matter how nice the buildings are.  As stated above, it is in the middle of a middle-class subdivision and retirement community and lacks any supporting infrastructure. No information was available on how or when these issues could be resolved.
  2. The County has stated that its efforts to address resident concerns will negatively impact the residents. For example, they state the need to erect exterior high-intensity lighting directly below and directly visible to homes. They fail to address noise traffic issues or the negative impact to home values and the tax base. When the Sheriff was asked how he could provide adequate neighborhood safety, he could not answer this question.
  3. The County failed to ever address how this project will benefit neighbors or the greater Soulsbyville community despite stating in the documentation available to the public that they will “…Ensure that neighborhoods and businesses are not negatively impacted by the (homeless) crisis.”
  4. The County’s financial presentation was lacking in virtually all elements including any future projections of costs or benefits. This is very reminiscent of both the Jamestown Mine purchase and the Juvenile Justice Center.


The Need for a Long-Term Solution

Haphazard decisions that bounce from one site to another negatively impacting communities is not the solution to the homeless issue. This is an issue affecting all Tuolumne County and City of Sonora residents. It is past time to address this but not without proper study. Moreover, the City and County should combine resources. For example, the City purchased a building on South Shepherd Street to renovate as part of a homeless housing solution but until recently has lacked the resources to proceed (now planned for 2023). Can the County aid in this project? The City is part of the County and appears to have carried much of the burden of the homeless problem. Are City homeless somehow different than County homeless?

A long-term solution rests in asking how we can benefit the homeless but not at the expense of another group, the homeowners. It is time to develop an independent, well-disciplined study that examines this with consideration given to combining limited resources while avoiding more costly mistakes like Jamestown Mine and the Juvenile Justice Center. The proposed Navigation Center in Soulsbyville lacks the fundamental criteria to address this problem and should be rejected by all county residents and the Board of Supervisors. Should this project proceed, all County taxpayers will bear the cost of yet another financial failure in the future.