The closure of Sonora’s homeless encampment known as Camp Hope has forced county officials and nonprofits into a vacuum of how to locate, house and treat those who have been displaced.
Quincy Yaley, Tuolumne County Community Development Department director, said in an email to The Union Democrat on Tuesday that, of about 48 residents at Camp Hope on Stockton Road, "about 50 percent found stable housing, 20 percent moved out of state to connect with family/friends; about 20 percent continue to receive housing services; and the remaining 10 percent left the program and their whereabouts are unknown."
But the residency totals at Camp Hope, a name coined in 2019 by homeless support nonprofit Give Someone a Chance founders Hazel and Dick Mitchell, are considered fluid based on the season, time of day, availability of residents and a variety of other factors.
"Our statistics differ greatly from the county, because we are in the trenches on a weekly basis. Very few have been placed indoors on a permanent basis," said Hazel Mitchell, co-founder of homeless assistance nonprofit Give Someone A Chance. "Give Someone a Chance is actively trying to find locations where they can put their tents, at least."
The county has publicly and repeatedly stated its commitment to housing and rehabilitating the homeless residents at Camp Hope after deeming the site, a former burn dump on private property, as a toxic hazard and seeking to vacate the inhabitants.
"It is our hope that these actions combined will protect the immediate safety interests of our community while we seek to address the root causes of homelessness through housing, addiction recovery, mental health resources, and financial opportunity," stated a Tuesday news release from the county on the Camp Hope closure, credited to District 1 Supervisor David Goldemberg and District 5 Supervisor Jaron Brandon.
The release coincided with Kellae Brown vacating her position as Tuolumne County Homeless Prevention Coordinator, which she confirmed to The Union Democrat on Wednesday, effective Aug. 31.
An inquiry by The Union Democrat to county officials requesting information regarding her position, a potential replacement, and how it will impact services, was not returned. Her leaving the position was not announced by the county in any official release as of Wednesday.
Brown was in a grant-funded position and managed the county's homelessness response and outreach to individuals about available services.
The county’s release characterized Camp Hope as a safety hazard due to fires, criminal activity, and an accumulation of solid waste, on-site grading, and non-permitted structures at the site which violate Tuolumne County Ordinance Codes and state Health and Safety Codes.
Camp Hope residents were notified on May 26 that they needed to relocate off the site and were originally given a deadline of Aug. 9 to leave.
"While it is a continuing and renewed mission at the County to address the issue of homelessness, we can neither tacitly endorse nor turn a blind eye to code violations that threaten the safety of our community now and have for many years," the press release stated.
The inhabitants were ordered to not return, the county release stated, though the county plans to continue visits to the site to ensure no individuals are there. They said remaining individuals would be provided with opportunities to come into services.
Among the services provided to the homeless were emergency housing, employment and training support, substance abuse recovery services, mental health programs, medical care, and COVID Emergency Case Management, the county release stated.
Give Someone a Chance has provided portable toilets, garbage services, potable water and showers to the homeless at Camp Hope for years, at a cost of about $1,400 a month.
Mitchell said Project Roomkey, a federally funded homeless initiative in California to provide housing during the COVID-19 pandemic, expired at the end of August. A small number of people from Camp Hope entered into that program, she said, with many others dispersing to other camp areas in the county.
"Where are all these homeless people to go? What is the county's plan?" she said. "Almost 90% of Camp Hope moved to other campsites and are still housed in their tents."
Mitchell said it appeared that 12 to 14 homeless people in Project Roomkey were being housed by another homeless aid non-profit, Resiliency Village, at their site, a portion of which came from Camp Hope.
Mitchell said Project Homekey, a program to provide affordable housing to the homeless, may be later funded to provide additional services.
"If anybody can help with that, please either contact the Board of Supervisors or Give Someone a Chance," she said. "It's a big elephant. It's not something you can solve overnight."
Resiliency Village, a Soulsbyville-based nonprofit, was previously contracted with the county to offer hotel rooms and case management to homeless individuals at risk for COVID-19.
They were originally granted $60,000 in February and were granted an increase of $100,000 in July. At the time, Executive Director Mark Dyken said the increase would only last until the end of August.
Dyken could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
"Individuals participating in temporary hotel stays and case management services are moving to some form of transitional shelter at the end of the month," Yaley said. "The county will continue to work with Resiliency Village as well as other nonprofits as additional funds become available."
Much of that temporary housing funding came from the Homeless Emergency Solutions Grants for COVID-19, provided through the federal office of Housing and Urban Development, and a portion was from Project Roomkey.
According to a county document on the agreement at the time of the increase, Resiliency Village had supported 52 clients to date with emergency housing and supportive case management. Of those, 26 received substance abuse care and 20 remain drug free, 10 received urgent medical care and ongoing care for serious health issues. There were 15 people remaining at Camp Hope who have declined services, the county document said.
The county contract with Resiliency Village is not associated with the group’s plan to house people who are homeless and provide services to them at a 40-acre property on Jenny Lind Road in the rural community of Big Hill.
Cathie Peacock, InterFaith Community Social Services executive director, said she has seen the "same flow" of people seeking food and other services since the Camp Hope closure, though some familiar faces appear to "have moved on."
"They come up here all the time for help. They can still come up here, like always. It's service as usual," she said.
Camp Hope was part of the Washington Fire evacuation area off of Stockton Road on Aug. 26, less than a quarter mile from the heart of the destructive flames that burned through homes on Golden Dove and Silver Pine Lane.
The cause of the fire has not been released at this time, though its proximity to Camp Hope — which has been the site of small fires — has prompted unverified claims that it originated there.
It was in the aftermath of the fire, once a large portion of the remaining homeless were evacuated, that the county instituted further blocks to access the site.
"As the closure was in place, the County determined it was prudent to block further access so individuals would no longer trespass on the Site," the release said.
At Camp Hope this week, there were at least K-rails, or cement road blocks, at dirt road entrances to the site.
Yaley said there was a locked gate at at least one entrance to Camp Hope. A sign on a gate notifies vehicle owners to call Tuolumne County Code Enforcement to gain access to the site and their vehicles.
At least one K-rail road block was installed on Aug. 25, the county said.
The county is planning a clean-up and remediation of the site with the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, also known as CalRecycle.
The CalRecycle work includes the removal of abandoned vehicles, solid waste and structures, as well as the soil testing. The remediation is expected to last until 2022.
The cost of the cleanup is unknown, Yaley said, depending on what future testing at the site finds. She said the soil testing will determine what materials are present, if the soil is contaminated, and if mitigation is needed to eliminate exposure to the unwanted sources.
The cleanup is the ultimate responsibility of the property owner, she added, though they were working with CalRecycle to locate funding that can be used to assist in the process.
Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4526.