Downtown Sonora merchants say the lack of action by leaders on homelessness grows worse by the year and stifles efforts for Sonora to become a top-tier tourist destination.
Loitering, littering, urinating on buildings, defecating on sidewalks, people passed out drunk, and drug use are among the most common complaints the Sonora Police Department receives as it relates to the city’s homeless population, which advocates say is the largest in Tuolumne County.
There could be anywhere from 360 to more than 540 people throughout the county who are homeless based on surveys conducted over the past four years, according to Give Someone a Chance, a nonprofit organization founded by a local retired couple who have worked closely with the homeless since 2013.
About 51 percent of the county’s homeless population is believed to be located within the City of Sonora and surrounding areas, according to the group’s observations.
Some argue that the city isn’t tough enough on homeless people and make the problem worse by offering free meals, laundry service, showers and other basic amenities.
Others say there’s a lack of services and housing to provide a better alternative for those who camp by creeks, under bridges, in vehicles, abandoned buildings and wooded areas on the outskirts of the city limits.
Doug Kennedy, owner of the Bourbon Barrel and Trado Restaurant Corporation, said he believes the situation will never get much better for the city and county until the two sides come together and find some common ground.
“I see two competing groups, one turning their backs on the homeless and the other side saying we’re just going to give you everything for free and camp by our creeks,” Kennedy said. “There needs to be some very honest, upfront and open dialogue from both sides.”
Kennedy, who’s building a $3 million beer garden and entertainment venue on South Green Street, said he doesn’t have motivation to move forward with his plans unless the elected leaders and government officials start doing more to address the issue.
One idea offered by Kennedy was to set up day-laborer gathering sites where homeless people could go to potentially get picked up by people for side jobs based on their skills.
“It’s time to stop planning these pipe-dream programs that aren’t going anywhere without anybody driving them forward, so let’s get a couple of base hits and score some runs,” Kennedy said. “I’m not just talking about scooping them all up and running them out of town, but there needs to be a plan other than just feed ’em, clean ’em, and stick ’em back in the woods.”
Being homeless in Sonora
Charles Floyd Miller Jr., who goes by the nickname “Mick,” lives in a camp on a wooded hill outside of the city with about eight to 10 other people, at least as many dogs, and one cat.
They each have their own living spaces made of mostly tents, tarps and sleeping bags, some of which are hung along clothing line to create makeshift walls for privacy. One of the camps visible from Miller’s has what appears to be a plastic greenhouse and 100-gallon water tank, potentially for growing marijuana.
Miller, 69, takes pride in keeping his area orderly and gets annoyed by others who leave behind their trash, some of whom aren’t homeless.
“I’ve seen working men in pickup trucks come up here and dump stuff like tires, refrigerators, and trash bags,” Miller said. “Some people are fools.”
Miller said he’s camped at the spot since last summer, after being kicked out of his previous camp along train tracks by The Junction shopping center in East Sonora. He became homeless three years ago after being kicked off an acquaintance’s property where he was living in a trailer for $40 a month.
Each morning, Miller said he wakes around sunrise when his neighbor begins singing a song or his tent gets too hot. He then sweeps his area, drinks about a gallon of water, and makes something for breakfast.
Miller said he walks to Walmart about once or twice a month with his disability check and purchases supplies, including water, food and alcohol. He admitted to picking up alcohol again when he became homeless about three years ago following over two decades of sobriety.
The check that Miller receives each month from the government for his disability is less than $900. Not enough, he says, to get a place of his own and cover his basic living expenses due to the escalating cost of housing.
“I’d rather live here,” Miller said. “The forest is my temple.”
However, survival is no easy task when it comes to living outside.
Miller said he’s been beaten up, robbed by people he’s helped, and enountered mountain lions during his time in the woods. He added that many of the people he deals with regularly suffer from mental-health issues, most commonly bipolar disorder or paranoid schizophrenia, and are addicted to drugs.
During the cold, stormy winter this year, Miller said he would go to one of the laundromats that offers free service one day per week to help the homeless and all of his clean clothes would be sopping wet by the time he got back to his camp.
Just getting water up the hill to his camp is among the most difficult tasks, but necessary, tasks for Miller.
“Five gallons of water is 40 pounds,” Miller said. “It’s hard to haul that up the hill when you’re 69.”
A former construction worker who became disabled at the age of 40 after decades of hard living and hauling sheet rock for $5 an hour, Miller said he would rather work for a place to stay than have someone just give him the keys.
One idea Miller suggested is building more low-cost housing and hiring homeless people to do the work. He also said homeless people could be paid to do other tasks around the community, such as cleaning up the sidewalks after the annual Mother Lode Roundup Parade.
Joshua “Tennessee” Williamson, 36, said he’s lived at four to five different camps throughout the county since becoming homeless in 2011 after quitting his job at Taco Bell and being unable to find other steady work.
Williamson moved to Sonora from Tennessee in 2008 to live with a family member after being laid off from a job he held for six years making sun visors at a car factory. He believes one of the biggest barriers he and others like him have faced is a lack of opportunity.
“If they want to do something to help these people, work them,” Williamson said. “They ran for office to do something, then do something.”
People making a difference
It has been said that it takes a village to raise a child, but Jeanette Lambert has her own motto when it comes to the homeless.
“I say it takes an entire community to take care of the homeless, the mentally ill, the drug addicted,” Lambert said at the David Lambert Drop-in Center on Jackson Street in Sonora.
For almost 19 years, Lambert has volunteered much of her time as the center’s coordinator. The center’s rent and utilities are paid for out of the Behavioral Health Department budget, but all other activities and resources are provided through donations, fundraisers, volunteers, or out of Lambert’s own pocket.
The center is named after her son, who suffered from mental illness and died at the age of 46.
Open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, the center offers a respite from outdoors as well as free resources including computer stations with access to Internet, an air-conditioned living area with a TV, food, clothing, and supplies like toilet paper, which Lambert said many refer to as “mountain money.”
Those who use what the center has to offer must first sign in, dress appropriately (nothing revealing allowed), be sober, and are encouraged to complete one chore per visit, such as wiping down tables, sweeping or washing dishes.
“The police have even said the five hours a day we’re here gives them a place to go where they’re not drinking or on drugs,” Lambert said.
A sign on the door of Lambert’s office reminds visitors, “Attitude is everything, pick a good one!”
Lambert said a majority of the homeless people she works with have mental-health issues and use drugs or alcohol as a way to cope. She added that many lack transportation, a driver’s license, high school diploma, and other things necessary to getting a job in the modern economy.
In addition, Lambert said repeated arrests have saddled some with hundreds to thousands of dollars in court fees that would come out of their wages even if they manage to find a 9-to-5 job. She would like to see some sort of amnesty program to address that issue.
Another idea Lambert had was a mentoring program in which people come by on a daily or weekly basis to visit with a homeless person at the center. She said there was a volunteer who would come by every day to visit a man and drive him around to look for a job until he finally landed one.
“What does that tell that guy? Somebody cares,” Lambert said.
Lambert said she believes the services and resources provided by the center likely prevents some crimes from happening, but she doesn’t excuse any bad behavior like the kind that has annoyed some downtown merchants.
Getting the various interests, such as businesses, churches, nonprofits, and government, to work together on a common vision is something Lambert believes could improve the situation.
“There’s not one easy fix,” Lambert said. “I don’t have the answer, but maybe together we can come up with a way to make Sonora a better place.”
Hazel and Dick Mitchell, of Jamestown, have helped a number of homeless people get back on their feet and indoors over the years through their Give Someone a Chance organization.
They previously owned land off of Tuolumne Road where they wanted to build a homeless shelter but were unable to bring their plan to reality after facing a number of roadblocks in part related to funding.
The couple has currently raised about $27,000 out of about $50,000 needed to convert a bus they received as a donation from the county into mobile showers for the homeless that would be parked at the drop-in center and other areas of the county on different days throughout the week.
A homestead sale is planned to run 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. today and Saturday and 8 a.m. to noon Sunday, at 17307 Table Mountain Road, with the proceeds being donated for the Mitchells’ shower bus.
Hazel Mitchell has also proposed a “homeless task force” that would involve various government agencies, such as law enforcement, housing, and veterans services, as well as homeless people themselves.
“If we could get everybody on board on the task force, we could solve a lot of these problems,” Hazel Mitchell said.
Need for leadership, collaboration
Stanislaus County Supervisor Terry Withrow was weary of seeing money from his county’s $1.2 billion budget being spent on treating the symptoms of poverty and homelessness as opposed to the underlying causes.
About two years ago, Withrow and Stanislaus County CEO Stan Risen spearheaded an initiative called Focus on Prevention that aimed to coordinate efforts among a number of sectors in the community, including government, business, nonprofits, education, churches, media, arts, sports, neighborhoods, philanthropy and entertainment.
“We put them all in a room and said we need to make this a better place to live,” Withrow said. “Things are deteriorating, so what are we going to do?”
Withrow envisioned the government would serve as a facilitator and let the community take ownership of the effort.
The first issue to tackle was homelessness. According to the initiative’s website, about 1,400 Stanislaus County residents experienced homelessness in 2014.
“We put together a stewardship council and have an action council to put things in place,” Withrow said. “We started off by asking ‘What does success look like?’ Then we figured out how we would measure that and how do we get there. We worked backwards.”
Although the 10-year effort is still in its early stages, it has already raised more than $1 million from the private sector.
The state budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year will also provide an additional $2.5 million in funding. Withrow said the money was secured by Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, who heard about what they were doing and wanted to help out.
Withrow said the stewardship council will ultimately decide how the money gets spent, but one of the group’s top priorities is the construction of a low-barrier shelter. Some shelters have stringent rules, such as not allowing pets, that prevent many from taking advantage of them.
“It used to be ‘get clean first and we’ll get you a house,’ but how can you get clean and sober when you’re living on the street every night? Let’s get them in a central location with low barriers where we know where they are and can provide them services on the spot.”
Housing advocates in Tuolumne County have long pointed to a relative lack of emergency shelters as a problem that makes homelessness more visible. The county has two that primarily serve women and children.
Withrow said any effort to significantly reduce the level of homeless in a community will take time, so patience and dedication is key.
One barrier to funding that organizations in Tuolumne County have faced is related to the difficulty in getting accurate counts of the homeless population for the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department’s Point-in-Time survey, something state and federal agencies rely upon when determining which projects to fund.
Surveys coordinated by ATCAA counted 225 people who were homeless in 2013, 167 in 2015 and 148 in 2016. Such surveys must be conducted at least every two years in order to be eligible for grants.
The problem with the county is that survey teams don’t enter outdoor camps, abandoned buildings, and can’t determine the number of people sleeping in cars or couch surfing, so that skews the results for places with lots of open land and rugged terrain.
Many advocates say the counts, which represent the number of people who are homeless at a specific point in time, usually represent only about one-third of the actual population due to the methodological limitations.
District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan said it will be highly important to get as many people involved with the upcoming survey in January to get a more accurate count and better chances at being eligible for funding.
Brennan also said there have been recent discussions about doing something similar to the Focus on Prevention effort in Stanislaus County.
“I think that philosophy is right on, in that this effort has to come from the community with the government playing a supportive role,” Brennan said. “The community does it better than government does it.”
The Sonora City Council tried to crack down on homelessness by passing a temporary ordinance in 2014 that made it a misdemeanor to camp on public or private property without permission anywhere in the city.
When the ordinance expired at the end of 2014, the controversial ban failed to gain enough support from the council for renewal.
Matt Hawkins, who was elected in June 2016, promised during his campaign that he would call a public forum within weeks of the election to get people together and discuss ways to address the issue of homelessness.
Hawkins said people in the city’s business community later asked him to put his plans on hold because they felt the situation was improving and that the publicity would create more problems.
However, he said he’s willing to reexamine the issue and believes the city should take the lead.
“The city absolutely needs to have a huge role, because that’s where the majority of the homeless people are,” Hawkins said. “It’s one of those things where Sonora not only needs a seat at the table, but we need to be at the forefront of how to deal with this.”
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.