Separate communities within Tuolumne County are handling the issue of homeless differently, and oftentimes, on their own terms. But in the nascent stages of a county task force saddled with solving the issue, many officials are calling for cooperation.
"The task force is up and running, and I strongly encourage folks who are interested in being part of the solution to be a part of the task force,” said Tuolumne County Homeless Prevention Coordinator Kellae Brown on Thursday. “That's the best way to make an impact.”
The task force, which was formed in August, is made up of a leadership committee and four subcommittees for housing solutions; addiction, mental health, medical and COVID-19; youth, teens, families and schools; and food, clothing, transportation and employment, Brown said.
Made up of 75 members, it is a community partnership still in its infancy, still defining its goals for a five-year plan and preparing for an eventual county-wide needs assessment.
The biggest obstacles facing them at this time, Brown said, is funding.
"We need to determine, what do people need and what are the gaps," she said.
Next is an issue of location, or where the many residents of Camp Hope, an encampment on private land off Stockton Road in Sonora, might be moved if a county order compels them to leave.
Concerns about the transfer of the residents of Camp Hope were recently inflamed by a false assumption that their move was imminent and to county-owned property in Jamestown.
The county has privately discussed a relocation of the residents of Camp Hope since February last year after a state agency, the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, or CalRecycle, and the county initiated an investigation into possible soil contamination and health hazards from former dump operations on the site.
The Camp Hope property is owned by the Rotelli family, and the homeless encampment is situated on a former burn dump they operated.
Malaina Taylor, owner of Joyful Heart Gardens in Jamestown, said she organized a meeting Thursday morning to provide more clarity to the public following a contentious gathering last week in Jamestown where over 100 community members lambasted County Supervisor Jaron Brandon and county officials for the possibility of moving Camp Hope to the county-owned former Harvard Mine property in Jamestown across from Hurst Ranch.
The proposal turned out to be just that, and far from a sure thing, though many spoke out with disdain at the idea that a Sonora homeless problem would be dumped into their backyard.
Six people, including Brandon, convened outside of Joyful Heart Gardens in Jamestown on Thursday morning.
"It's a bad location here," Brandon told the group. "We have to push an alternative, and we have to push it strongly."
Much of the ongoing discussions regarding the potential move from Camp Hope was classified as confidential in closed-session meetings with the county Board of Supervisors.
Still, Brandon reassured the small group Thursday, and the larger group last Tuesday, he is eager for new ideas and participation.
One idea, Brandon said, is possibly a temporary relocation near the Law and Justice Center in Sonora, because it is close to transportation and law enforcement. The county planned to relocate the District Attorney's Office and Public Defender's Office out there as well, eventually, he noted, which made the idea only temporary. He cautioned, however, that no ideas are a sure thing and everything remains purely on a discussion basis.
Taylor also provided an in-progress "fact sheet" to some of the attendees and noted her ongoing participation with officials like Brown. She said she hoped to dissuade some of the misinformation surrounding the move, but not advertise Tuolumne County as a potential destination once the move is finalized.
"You don't want it to be a comfortable situation," she said.
Her husband, Ian McDonald, proposed a "citizen patrol" of military veterans within Jamestown to confront homeless people engaging in inappropriate public behavior, such as profanity or drunkenness.
"We would say, 'This is not acceptable.' It's what my dad would have done, it's what my granddad would have done, it's what my great-grandad would have done," McDonald said. "We're the men of Jamestown, and we don't want you here. If you don't engage here in an appropriate manner, we don't want you here."
McDonald said he hopes the public accountability will put their behavior in the spotlight and counter any blight before it occurs.
He described it as a "long term management solution" to reduce impact of negative behavior in the community and said he planned to speak to community members at Stogie's, a downtown Jamestown business, about the idea on Friday.
"We're trying to make it shine again. Jamestown has been suffering for a long time,” he said.
Many members of the public have acknowledged the mosaic of county homeless, whether they're recently unsheltered, in a financial pinch, or suffering from drug abuse or mental illness.
Mike and Dana Rasmussen said they have lived in Jamestown, near downtown, for 11 years. They missed the meeting last week and decided to attend after seeing a Facebook post.
"This is a real problem that needs real solutions,” Mike Rasmussen said. “We need to approach it like responsible citizens.”
Brown, whose salary is paid through a state grant, said it is essential that the county continue to partner with local agencies like the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency, the Center for a Non Violent Community, Give Someone a Chance and Resiliency Village. The task force was anticipating more grants that could be accessed for additional aid money, Brown said.
Hazel Mitchell, co-founder and CEO of Give Someone a Chance, a homelessness improvement organization, affirmed that if the homeless residents are moved, they will still need to be in a place that is accessible and central to the services and commerce in the county.
Mitchell said she takes homeless residents to 41 places they need to go, including the Probation Department in Sonora, to parole officers and for groceries.
"Where they might go is beyond me. If there's other things in store, I don't know," she said. "I think they need to look in their own backyard. The county property is all over, but we still need to have them close enough to get where they need to go."
Mitchell said a homeless count a year ago had about 63 people at Camp Hope, though those numbers fluctuate. She said the county is seeing an increase of displaced elderly women whose husbands were the only breadwinners.
"Not all people are bums that are homeless, and some of them have these kinds of circumstances," she said.
The community at Camp Hope remains tense about the future, because they are unsure about where they might be transported, Mitchell said.
"Right now, everybody's scared and they don't know what to do,” she said. “They don't want to make improvements right now, because they might not be able to keep it anyway.”
Mark Dyken, director of the local nonprofit organization Resiliency Village, said his group recently learned the "nature of NIMBY [Not In My Back Yard] in a really strong way" for their efforts to purchase a piece of land and construct "tiny houses" on the property.
Property identified near Golf Links Road fell through, and Resilience Village is in the process of raising more money for a new site within the county and not within an incorporated part of Sonora, he said.
"We're right on the cusp of being able to launch this project," he said. "We feel like it mitigates the NIMBY issue."
Resiliency Village raised about $20,000 during an online fundraiser for "Giving Tuesday" on Dec. 1 and is now seeking $25,000 to fund the new location.
In the meantime, Dyken said the group continues to house people in hotels, deliver food and visit people in the camps. He said the online conversation and tenor of the previous Jamestown meeting gave him pause about some of the misconceptions the public still held for the unsheltered.
"Of course, as someone who works on this, it's disheartening to see what people say about their fellow human beings," he said. "There's this notion that anyone who is unsheltered is some kind of bum or drag on society, it's just not true."
Dyken also said he hopes to tamp down on another misconception that the residents are "bussed in" or from out of town. Though it was often single men who are seen by the public, he noted that a large portion of the county homeless are actually families or single mothers.
"They're not going to disappear," he said. "You're not going to outlaw people out of homelessness. If we don't solve this together, we're going to deal with the consequences together."
Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at email@example.com or (209) 588-4526.