Establishing a low-barrier homeless shelter could be accomplished in a matter of months if the various governmental agencies, service providers and nonprofit groups in Tuolumne County can work together to make it happen, according to Raj Rambob, executive director of the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency.

Rambob introduced the concept earlier this month at a public meeting hosted by the City of Sonora’s homeless task force. The idea is to create a place where anyone would be able to stay overnight, regardless if they are sober or actively looking for work.

“One of my hopes is that the City of Sonora will be able to offer space and/or partial funding towards a low-barrier shelter,” he stated in an email Tuesday. “I also hope the task force recommends, and the city agrees, collaboration with the county and providers.”

The task force is scheduled to hold another public meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at City Hall, 94 N. Washington St., to discuss the idea and possibly provide recommendations on how to move forward.

Rambob will be unable to attend the meeting in Sonora due to a conflicting meeting with people in Amador County, who are also considering the so-called “low-barrier approach” to addressing homelessness, though he said he will send ATCAA Housing Resources Director Tamara Dockstader in his place.

Support for the idea seems to be growing among people in Tuolumne County. About 30 people attended the previous meeting on Jan. 12, several of whom expressed an eagerness to get started on the project as soon as possible.

Though there were some detractors, online comments to an article in The Union Democrat about the previous meeting were largely positive. Rambob said he’s only heard support for the idea over the past couple weeks, but he expects resistance will become more visible once a potential location is identified.

The concept has reportedly been successful in other areas that have established such a shelter, such as Iowa City, Iowa, where authorities have seen a decline in calls about vagrancy, incarceration and emergency room visits while its open.

Rambob was involved with one called Grace Place in Placerville between 2005 and 2008. He said of the 8,000 check-ins over that time, he called the police three times while volunteering at the shelter three nights per week.

City Administrator Tim Miller said he hasn’t heard any feedback from the community since the task force’s last meeting, but he believes such a shelter could play a role in addressing some of the issues related to homelessness in the city and county. He added it will require broad-based support to be successful.

“The city won’t be able to do this on its own,” he said. “It’s going to need to involve the city, county, agency providers and other organizations that provide support for the homeless.”

A census of the county’s homeless population in late September that was organized by ATCAA and funded by a $10,000 grant from the Sonora Area Foundation found 711 people who said they were homeless.

More than one-third of those surveyed said they were sleeping outdoors, while the rest were staying in someone’s shed or garage, a vehicle, abandoned building, motel, one of the county’s two existing shelters or couchsurfing.

While the majority of those who said they were homeless at the time were 25 or older, 177 were younger than 18.

There is currently one 25-bed shelter operated by ATCAA in Sonora that accepts both families and individuals, though it’s consistently at capacity. The Center for a Non Violent Community also operates a shelter for women and children escaping domestic abuse.

Miller said the task force needs to consider the types of people they want to serve at a potential shelter, where they would want it to be located, how it would be financed and funded on an ongoing basis, staffing, and what partners should be involved in managing it.

“They need to discuss how it might be implemented or accomplished here in the community,” he said. “There’s a lot of elements and factors to it that need to be considered.”

The task force is led by Mayor Pro-Tem Jim Garaventa and also consists of: Councilman Matt Hawkins; Jeanette Lambert, a homeless advocate who supervises the David Lambert Community Drop-In Center in Sonora; Cathie Peacock, director of Interfaith Community Social Services; Marianne Wright, a Sonora business owner; Colette Such, a resident representing the public at large; and Rambob.

Hazel Mitchell, who co-founded the Sonora-based nonprofit organization Give Someone a Chance that provides aid to the homeless, attended the last meeting and talked about a similar idea she had with her husband, Dick.

Mitchell said they purchased a 2.5-acre piece of land off Eagle Ridge Drive in East Sonora to build a homeless shelter four years ago, but the plans ultimately fell through due to a lack of funding.

They planned to first put up two 30-foot yurts as a temporary winter homeless shelter while raising money to eventually build a permanent one that could house up to 80 people throughout the year.

The estimated cost of the building the shelter was $3.2 million if they used government funding, because such grants required all those working on the project to be paid prevailing wage, which was about $28 an hour at the time.

Their requests for funding were turned down by both the Sonora Area Foundation as well as the federal Community Development Block Grant Program.

“We just didn’t have enough experience, I guess,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell determined the cost of the shelter could be brought down to $900,000 if government funding wasn’t involved because she contacted many contractors who were willing to donate labor and resources.

The couple were unable to raise the money needed to get the project off the ground and decided to sell the land last year to focus on their organization’s other services, which includes providing case management, support for homeless veterans, transportation, and refurbishing RVs for low-income housing.

They are planning to launch a mobile shower bus in March funded entirely through donations.

“A lot of general contractors tell me they would still be willing to do that if we went that way (establishing a shelter), but we don’t have that in our mission at this moment,” Mitchell said.

The task force is also scheduled to receive a report from Wright about how downtown merchants feel about the issue of homelessness, as well as one from Such regarding the establishment of a “homeless court.”

A homeless court would provide an opportunity for people who are homeless to erase past charges and debt from court fines.

Mitchell, who interacts with homeless people throughout the county on a daily basis, said past criminal charges and debts from fines are a “huge” factor in why some people have trouble escaping the cycle of homelessness.

“To me, the person who went prison has paid their debt, but oftentimes they can’t get a job,” she said. “People say, ‘Why can’t they just get a job?’ Well, they can’t get a job.”

She said the average amount of court-related debt among the homeless people she works with is between $1,600 and $6,000.

The largest debt Mitchell has seen belonged to one man who owed $13,000 in unpaid court fees and fines. She added that he’s been sober and working for the past four years, but he can’t afford a place to live.

“They’ll garnish your wages and then you still don’t have enough to pay your apartment bill, because it’s usually a lower paying job if you can even get one,” she said.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.

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