Homeless camp

Two dwellings are set up in a homeless camp under a bridge in East Sonora.

A local group will begin developing a plan that would provide shelter to unhoused people in Tuolumne County at a sanctioned, independently managed campground somewhere in the area after getting support from both the Sonora City Council and county Board of Supervisors this week.

The county’s newly created Commission on Homelessness presented the concept to the council and board at public meetings on Monday and Tuesday, respectively, before getting unanimous approval from both to continue working toward a formal proposal.

“I'm incredibly grateful for the leadership from both the Board of Supervisors and City Council, which empowers our commission to move forward from a conceptual idea to a shovel-ready plan, with input from all stakeholders and the public built into that process,” Dana Baker, vice-chair for the commission, said Tuesday afternoon. “I'm optimistic that we can overcome any potential obstacles toward that end collaboratively, given the county, city, and public encouragement to proceed that we received this week.”

Getting consensus from both government panels took time and effort, but the 5-0 final votes did not mask the reality that elected officials, their staffs, and the general public do not always see eye-to-eye on how to confront homelessness problems in the city and the county.

Fears of NIMBY not-in-my-backyard attitudes from city and county residents resonated in comments at both meetings Monday night and Tuesday morning.

Local leaders in the Mother Lode have grappled with addressing the issue for years as numbers of unhoused people have increased. Some officials are sensitive to current criticism that nothing whatsoever has been done to help the homeless.

“There is frustration when we hear staff hasn’t done anything,” County Administrator Tracie Riggs, said Tuesday before the board voted. “We did have a project in Jamestown. No matter where we go with this, people will be opposed. We need to be ready for that.”

Any outdoor campground or facility would have to be on county property in order to do pallet homes, tiny homes, or tents under an ordinance approved earlier this year by the board, Riggs said.

“We need to know if your board is interested in expending resources on this,” she said. “Land, structures, sanitation, the board will need to put some financial resources behind this. Help us understand how much time you want us to devote to this, and what we’re going to push aside to work on this.”

County Counsel Sarah Carrillo advised the board that county staff would need to work very closely with the commission on their plans before county staff could come back with estimated costs.

Riggs emphasized that she would recommend pallet homes, tiny homes, or structures with sanitation before a campground with people living only in tents.

The process of identifying suitable locations for an outdoors campground would need to go through the RFP, or request for proposals, process so that everyone would have opportunities to weigh in and have their say before a campground could be developed for clients, Riggs said.

“We need to move forward,” County Supervisor David Goldemberg said. “I don’t want to be here a year from now talking about this. We need to figure out a plan and do something.”

Baker and other commission members tried to convey to the council and board that the hoped-for benefits from their campground concept could include reduction of unauthorized camps. 

Community partnerships and volunteers could manage the site, a mix of on-site security and self-policing could provide safety without deterring homeless residents from choosing the site, the site would be set up to be sanitary and fire-safe, and it could centralize a location to provide services for the homeless, Baker said.

The commission also emphasized the concept for a homeless campground would not reduce the urgent need for affordable housing and shelter expansion in the county; replace the need for Office of Emergency Services emergency shelters; replace or supersede provisions or services that are supposed to be triggered by a county extreme temperature contingency plan; or provide a long-term solution for people experiencing homelessness.

“This is an interim solution,” Joseph Bors, executive director for the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency and member of the commission, said Monday night. “This is not the end game.”

Bors added that the commission hopes to find a place for the campground that’s “not too visible, a place out of normal eyesight and not near residential buildings.” 

The site would provide basics like blankets, tents, water, sewer, garbage removal, electricity, lighting, security, mobile laundry, mobile showers, mobile wifi, and parking, Bors said.

“These are lacking for people living on the street or in a creek,” he said.

Councilwoman Ann Segerstrom asked for clarity on exactly what the commission was asking for from the city council.

“We are asking for the city to buy in and support us,” Baker said, “as we put this together.”

Sonora Police Lt. Jennifer Hannula addressed the council during the discussion on Monday and described homelessness as a “multilayered problem” that requires agencies to work together toward solutions. 

Hannula said she hoped the proposed campground would have a fence to keep unwelcome people out, not to keep the campground residents in something like a lock-up.

Baker told the council the plan is for a campground for about 50 people total and to serve the most needy individuals.

Sonora Fire Chief Aimee New said the campground would increase calls for help from her department wherever it would ultimately be located. 

More than one-third of all Sonora Fire Department calls for service – 35% – are already from unincorporated county areas, New told the council.

“It seems a little like madness to me,” Councilwoman Colette Such said at one point. “We know people are living in tents, not on foundations. We know we are soiling our creeks. We know there are unmanaged camps and they are the worst possible situation. What we have right now is not working. This is sort of a circular conversation. They’re here. So how can we help decrease their impact on businesses and our community, and how can we help these people?”

Such eventually made a motion to endorse the commission’s plan and Segerstrom seconded. Councilman Jim Garaventa indicated he could not vote for the motion the way it was phrased. Councilman Mark Plummer indicated he too had problems with details of what the commission was asking for and how the motion was phrased.

Mayor Matt Hawkins said that he hoped the council could vote unanimously to support the homeless commission. Such and Segerstrom decided to rescind the original motion and the original second. Segerstrom then rephrased the motion, Such seconded, and the panel voted with all five members in favor and zero opposed.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.net or (209) 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.