After meeting for several months, a task force on homelessness formed last year by the Sonora City Council has come to the conclusion that any solutions will require participation from Tuolumne County and other partners.
Members of the task force said the decision came at their last meeting on April 12 to make a recommendation for the council to seek outside help because the city is ill-equipped to tackle the widespread and complicated issue by itself.
“While the city’s task force can deal with specific problems in the city, it wasn’t going to get anywhere close to the underlying causes,” said Mayor Pro-Tem Jim Garaventa, chairman of the task force. “There’s been some behind-the-scenes discussion about how the county can join in with the city and different advocacy groups to move forward.”
The task force was established last year after the council approved a controversial ordinance in August that banned camping on public or private property within the three-square-mile city limits at the urging of downtown merchants who had experienced problems related to a rising number of homeless people.
At the time of the task force’s formation, members of the council expressed a desire to maintain autonomy from the county.
Garaventa said the task force was formed specifically to address what was happening in the small downtown area, but its members sought to address the underlying causes of homelessness as opposed to just the symptoms.
“After awhile, it became obvious that nothing can really happen without involvement by the county,” he said.
In late September, a survey conducted by mostly volunteers for the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency found 711 people in Tuolumne County who said they were homeless.
The higher visibility of the issue in the downtown area has been blamed partly on the fact that most service providers and resources for homeless people are located within the city, though most of those like behavioral health are overseen by the county.
“There’s a huge mental health issue that’s part of the homeless population,” Garaventa said. “I think with the city and county both working together, there can be more discussion about exactly what’s the problem and where we need to go.”
Garaventa and other members of the task force said they believed the exercise — which involved meeting nearly twice a month since October — was ultimately beneficial to create discussion, elevate public awareness, and provide education on the issue.
The task force consisted of: Garaventa; Councilman Matt Hawkins; Jeanette Lambert, volunteer coordinator of the David Lambert Community Drop-In Center in Sonora; Cathie Peacock, director of Interfaith Community Social Services; Raj Rambob, executive director of ATCAA; Marianne Wright, a downtown business representative; and Colette Such, who represented the general public and is now running for one of two open seats on the council in the June 5 election.
Peacock said she believed the task force may have held more meetings than necessary when considering that a tangible result was never accomplished, though she said she was part of a similar group with city and county officials that met in private several years ago and ultimately fizzled out.
“This one at least got the education and things addressed that the merchants were talking about,” Peacock said. “For some reason in my mind, I thought there would be more input from the community and homeless themselves.”
Rambob said he believed the task force played an important role in bringing together homeless advocates and merchants to hash out their different concerns.
“One of the most beneficial and beautiful things that came out of it was the business owners who came to it on a regular basis got a profound understanding of what homelessness actually looks like and the hurdles that homeless face,” he said. “Businesses are part of the community, provide a lot of jobs and are also very generous with their time, goods, and facilities.”
An idea that Rambob brought forward at the meetings was a proposal to establish a “low-barrier” shelter, where the homeless could go at night to get a meal and sleep out of the elements with few requirements related to sobriety or employment status.
Rambob said he and ATCAA will stay involved with future discussions and continue to push for places where people can go during hot and cold months of the year, whether that be public buildings, churches, businesses, or other privately held spaces.
“While I do carry in my gut a strong sense of urgency and a little bit of sadness that we couldn’t find something to do right away, I also recognize that really important progress was made as far as a deepened understanding between multiple sides,” he said. “Moving forward, I think we’re going to be more together on this than at the start of the task force.”
Animal waste, panhandling and loitering were several topics brought up by downtown merchants at meetings.
The Tuolumne County Land Trust has come forward to work with city on funding and installing dog-waste stations in the downtown area that would contain plastic bags to make it easier for people to clean up after their pet.
Wright said she believed progress was also made on the panhandling and loitering issue by giving merchants a better understanding of places that they can direct people for help.
“If they think someone is loitering or needs food, there are places for them to go and it’s not necessary to be standing in front of businesses,” she said.
Wright said she also believes that too many state regulations have made it difficult for developers to build housing that is affordable for people in lower- to middle-income brackets, including younger people who are facing hurdles that weren’t there for previous generations.
“A lot of these laws were done in good faith thinking they would be better for the environment and safer for the public, but it’s just been way over done,” she said. “You can’t just build a small, simple house with a swamp cooler and a wood stove anymore.”
Sonora Mayor Connie Williams, who attended many of the task force’s meetings but did not participate as a member, said she has had conversations with Tuolumne County Supervisor Sherri Brennan, who represents District 1.
Brennan said talks about the subject are still in the early stages, but she personally has an interest in expanding the conversation.
“This issue is much larger than just the city and county, but the county is definitely a huge piece of it,” Brennan said. “I feel like we’ve all talked an awful lot and need to move this forward with some action.”
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.