Local advocates envision a shelter in the City of Sonora where homeless people can come at night to get a meal and sleep safely, all without the expectation of sobriety and other requirements that can prevent many from seeking help.
The concept, known as the “low-barrier model,” has proven to be successful in other places that have implemented it, such as Iowa City, Iowa, where a nonprofit group has opened a low-barrier shelter during winter for the past three years.
Crissy Canganelli, executive director of Shelter House, said the winter shelter that her group operates in Iowa City typically houses between 26 to 32 people per night while it’s open from December through mid-March.
Canganelli said that the Iowa City Police Department has reported a 67 to 74 percent decrease in the number of vagrancy calls over the past three years. There has also been a decline in the incarceration rate and number of emergency-room visits for issues like frostbite.
“No one who is homeless in our community has died due to exposure that we know of since we’ve had this service,” Canganelli said.
The pushback that the organization has faced along the way is similar to what others have experienced locally when trying to undertake such projects, including concerns from neighbors and business owners about crime and creating a magnet for the homeless.
Canganelli said a way to start shifting the conversation is through forging strong alliances with key agencies in the community, especially the local police.
Raj Rambob, executive director of the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Alliance, gave a presentation to the City of Sonora’s Homeless Task Force at a meeting Thursday night about how the low-barrier model can serve as a first step in addressing the issue here.
Rambob, who is also a member of the task force, said one of the purposes of such a shelter is to show people who are homeless that the community cares about them, which in itself can make a person want to change their ways.
The healing process can be lengthy for someone who is deeply broken from childhood trauma or other life circumstances, Rambob cautioned.
“Even if somehow they don’t magically conform over time to what we would like to see, the fact that they can go to bed knowing that people care about them is important,” he said. “Having that knowledge and experience does create transformation.”
At least 711 people in Tuolumne County were homeless in late September, according to a survey coordinated by ATCAA and funded by the Sonora Area Foundation.
Of those surveyed, 252 said they were sleeping outside or in the woods, 163 were couchsurfing, 116 were in vehicles, 66 were in one of the two shelters in the county, 41 were in motels, 30 identified as “other,” 30 were in abandoned buildings or trailers, and three had just been released from jail.
Many of the people who identified as “couchsurfing” said they were living in sheds or unairconditioned garages.
The Center for a Non Violent Community operates a shelter in the county exclusively for women and children escaping domestic violence, while ATCAA operates a 25-bed shelter in Sonora that’s virtually always at capacity.
Rambob said the shelter ATCAA operates is considered “high barrier” because people are required to be sober and must be actively looking for work or some other activity to get themselves into permanent housing.
“We do need more space for a high-bar approach, but there are a lot of folks who aren’t ready for that,” Rambob said.
The county also lacks a coordinated effort among different service providers and organizations to help those who are most needy, according to Rambob.
“Lots of us are trying to do the right thing, but we’re trying to do the right thing without being in connection with one another,” he said.
One of the short-term results from opening such a shelter would be less of a presence of homeless people along Washington Street and other public areas. Long-term results could include healing for those who would seek out the help they need, Rambob said.
Rambob said he witnessed such effects while living in El Dorado County, where he was part of a group of volunteers who started a low-barrier shelter called Grace Place that was located at the gym of a church in Placerville.
The shelter would open at 5 p.m. each day. People would be served a meal and could stay overnight. He said the volunteers started to build relationships with the people who would go there by interacting with them, eating with them and playing table games.
From 2005 to 2008, there were about 8,000 check-ins at the shelter. Rambob said he only had to call the police twice in the two years he volunteered at the shelter about three nights a week.
“There were people who were quote unquote belligerent, but they decided to be nice, get along and it would be OK,” he said.
There was pushback to the shelter when they first decided to open it, including from the Placerville police chief who was Rambob’s neighbor. An El Dorado County supervisor, whom Rambob declined to name, told one of the volunteers “there will be a shelter in this county over my dead body.”
Rambob said the police chief later thanked him because nuisance calls had dropped to “almost nothing.”
Providing human connection for people who are at the shelter is the most important part of the low-barrier approach, according to Rambob, so it will require a skilled coordinator and ongoing support from the community to be effective. He estimated needing one person during the day, two to three at night and one overnight.
People often spend too much time focusing on the structure and location of such a shelter early in the process, Rambob said.
“It can be a warehouse, it can be a parking lot, it doesn’t matter where it is,” Rambob said. “It’s the spirit of the program that matters most. The structure is secondary.”
In Iowa City, coordinators worked with developers for vacant commercial building to temporarily house the low-barrier winter shelters in the first two years. The Johnson County Board of Supervisors approved the use of a vacant county building this year.
The low-barrier shelter in Iowa City is also not faith-based, despite sometimes being housed in a vacant church building during the winter 2016-17. Rambob said avoiding any sort of religious requirements is important.
“Not everyone who’s homeless wants to be religious, or wants to be Christian,” he said.
Don Sullivant, of Lighthouse Ministries in Sonora, expressed his concerns that a policy against proselytizing could make faith-based organizations that help the homeless like his less likely to participate.
Rambob acknowledged the concerns but explained that people who went to the shelter in Placerville were allowed to ask volunteers about their religious beliefs, and many would end up going to church to with them.
Hazel Mitchell, of Jamestown, runs a nonprofit organization called Give Someone a Chance that helps and advocates for homeless people in the county. She talked about how she and her group had planned to build such a shelter on two acres in the county years ago.
Mitchell said they determined that the shelter would cost $3.2 million if government funding was involved, or $900,000 without government funding. They were unable to come up with the money, but she still has the designs.
“I support what you’re doing and think your ideas are phenomenal,” Mitchell told Rambob. “We do more for our animals than we do for our human beings.”
Several of the roughly 30 people at Tuesday’s meeting spoke in support of the low-barrier shelter.
Jill Klajic-Ryan, of Columbia, said she used to live in Santa Clarita, where they took a similar approach to homelessness. She added that they started out small like Rambob had suggested, then “a bunch of organizations jumped on bard.”
“We need to start sometime soon,” she said. “Are we going to start this month?”
The task force, which is led by Mayor Pro-Tem Jim Garaventa, decided to schedule a discussion about setting specific goals and a timeline at its next meeting on Jan. 25.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.