J ennifer Morrison, 34, describes watching her tent freeze while she was still inside of it last December as one of the scariest experiences of her life.
Morrison’s boyfriend, Jonathan Harkrader, 31, said he wasn’t sure if she was going to survive after both came down with pneumonia and were hospitalized for weeks during the previous harsh winter.
“Whatever you do, don’t become homeless,” Harkrader said. “There are no responsibilities out here, but I honestly wouldn’t mind paying rent right now.”
The couple are among the hundreds of homeless people in Tuolumne County who will spend the next several months struggling to stay warm and dry due to a lack of shelters.
Harkrader said illness and possible death from exposure during winter is just another of the many hazards they face.
In October, Harkrader said he and Morrison were robbed during a brutal attack at the hands of four unknown male assailants.
The men pulled Morrison from the tent and stepped on it so that Harkrader was trapped inside. They then used one of his knives to slice the side of Morrison’s head, he said.
“There’s a lot of fighting and stealing among the homeless,” Harkrader said. “Imagine what we could get done if we all came together?”
Addiction is another prevalent problem in the homeless community.
Harkrader said many use methamphetamine as their drug of choice because the stimulant suppresses their appetite when they can’t find food and helps them stay awake during the cold winter nights.
“It’s easier to keep warm when you’re awake than when you’re asleep,” Harkrader said.
Harkrader is far from alone in his misery as the days get shorter and nights get longer.
A recent survey conducted in late September counted 711 homeless people who were living in the county at the time, though experts believe that number is likely to drop in the months ahead.
There’s currently only one 25-bed shelter in the county that accepts both single males and females as well as families with children.
Morrison said she believes there should be more shelters, particularly for the older homeless population.
Tom Hinnard, 66, spent five days in the hospital this year after coming down with pneumonia during storms a couple of months ago.
Hinnard said he now sleeps on an elevated cot at his camp site off Stockton Road after suffering a collapsed lung last winter, which required him to be medi-flighted to Doctors Medical Center in Modesto.
“I must still be here for a reason,” Hinnard said.
There are several places where people who are homeless can go to stay warm during the day, including the David Lambert Community Drop-In Center in Sonora.
The center is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Volunteers at the center on Thursday said they typically see about a dozen or so additional people coming through the center per day during the winter as compared to summer.
Rhonda Pierce, who has volunteered at the center for the past four years, said they are constantly running out of tents, sleeping bags, coats and other supplies to keep warm during the winter months.
“A lot of them talk about how everything gets soaking wet when it rains and they don’t really have a way to dry it, so we usually end up giving them more stuff,” said Pierce, of Sonora.
The Tuolumne County Behavioral Health Enrichment Center at 102 Hospital Road in Sonora also gives out sleeping bags and tents for those in need.
Steve Boyack, acting director of the Behavioral Health Department, said the center has given out 25 tents and 40 sleeping bags this year.
Boyack said the county’s Office of Emergency Services also opens temporary warming shelters when daytime low temperatures reach 32 degrees or less and nighttime lows reach 15 degrees or less for three to four straight days.
The county and American Red Cross last opened a warming shelter in late January at the Word of Life Fellowship Church in Mi-Wuk Village.
Several churches in the county that were contacted Thursday said they don’t open their doors during winter for the homeless to stay overnight for various reasons, including lack of enough bathroom facilities and supervision.
Beetle Barbour, former housing resources director for the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency, said she worked with a number of churches in the area to see if they would house a select number of families during the winter, but ran into similar concerns.
“It’s not a solution to the large number of homeless we have in our community right now, but any intervention is better than no intervention at all,” Barbour said.
Barbour said she believes some of the transients known to cause trouble around downtown Sonora can give homeless families in the county a bad name.
Sonora police arrested a 28-year-old transient man Wednesday morning on suspicion of misdemeanor trespassing after a resident on Snell Street found him sleeping in their laundry room.
The man said he was seeking a place to stay warm and mistakenly believed the house was owned by a person he knew.
Acting Sonora Police Chief Turu VanderWiel said such incidents are not common in the city, despite boasting the largest concentration of homeless people in the county.
“It’s not a common occurrence where they actually enter into an occupied home to get out of the cold,” VanderWiel said.
Another place homeless people used to seek respite from the cold was the lobby to the United States Post Office at 781 S. Washington St. before they started closing it at night.
A man was arrested at the post office Sunday night on suspicion of attempting to break into the lobby. VanderWiel said he never provided a motive, so any assumption he was trying to get out of the cold would be speculation.
Due to other issues associated with homeless people, the city has formed a task force in hopes of identifying a long-term solution to the problem. The group’s next public meeting is scheduled for Thursday.
Cathie Peacock, who serves on the task force and is also director of Interfaith Community Social Services in East Sonora, said there are many agencies in the area that are trying to help, but a lack of places for people to sleep out of the elements remains a key problem.
“Whether they’re in that position from a self-inflicted reason or they just lost their home, there’s really not a lot up here,” Peacock said. “Our clients are beginning to get really, really nervous about this, and the saddest past is that’s when they tend to give up trying.”
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