The weather has warmed up some and so the threat of people freezing to death in tents in the woods has diminished.
Consider that phrase — threat of freezing to death. Overstatement? Not so much, even if it hasn’t happened. Yet.
The fact that our community buys tents to give to the homeless so they can sleep more comfortably in the woods is, frankly, a sad testament to who we are and what we value. It’s simply not enough.
Remember, Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency volunteers counted 711 people without homes last summer. Raj Rambob, ATCAA executive director, said there were probably many more. No count finds everyone.
Let’s consider the whole as parts, meaning 177 of those people are under the age of 17, and 32 of them are 0 to 5. Babies. Children. Thirty-one had served their country in the military.
The volunteers who met with these people came away stunned, sad and determined to do more.
One said, “People have the wrong impression.”
Wrong impression as in these people choose to be homeless. Or they are alcoholics. Addicts. They are mentally ill.
Some are. Does that mean they deserve to live in the woods? This is not camping. This is go to the bathroom in a bucket. This is no hand washing. No shower. No respite from heat, bugs, cold, rain, terror. Nothing to protect you from someone who wants to do harm.
Another ATCAA volunteer said, “I had no idea it was this bad.”
It is this bad.
So what to do? Here are three ideas, listed in the order of least expensive and difficult.
At the very least, the community should come up with a place where people can sleep overnight when it is cold. There is a protocol to do this but it’s never been implemented. Cold-weather shelters are commonplace in other communities and usually handled by a religious or civic organization.
You need a hall, gym or other big space, some cots, a food pantry of sorts and the will to get people out of the cold. It would be open only when the temperature falls below freezing.
The second idea, which many other communities have adopted, is temporary housing in various church facilities, many of which go unused during the week. This is known as a hospitality network and is most effective for families.
According to national statistics, families make up 41 percent of homeless people.
There’s no reason to believe this community is any different.
The way this works is churches work together to offer housing and meals. Clients are evaluated to ensure this placement is suitable. The churches take turns. Church members cook meals and spend the night, offering comfort and support to people who are hurting.
Churches here are already cooking meals. This is the next logical step.
One outcome that has surprised some church leaders is the change that comes from interaction. Some homeless people have never known anyone who has a job. They forget what it feels like for a stranger to care.
As a result, some have become regular churchgoers. The will to keep going rises up from a hospitality network.
Next is a full-time shelter, where people can go to be safe and get the services they need. Some people do not have a birth certificate or Social Security card, making it impossible to find a good job. Some, of course, need more extensive services such as counseling or job training.
ATCAA has one facility with 25 beds. Obviously this is not enough. They also have the desire to develop what’s called a low-barrier shelter, which is a place where people can go, no matter their circumstances. This is a great idea, one the community should support.
This will reduce the cost of so many services our community is already shouldering such as visits to the emergency room. The organization plans to make a presentation on this proposal soon.
The one thing that ties these three suggestions is making homelessness a matter for the entire community. This should not be a fix from ATCAA only or the city of Sonora’s homeless task force. This is not a law enforcement or Behavioral Health issue. This separation of services is what’s gotten us into this situation.
Our caring community must come together to support our neighbors. Think of those 177 kids.