NEVADA COUNTY — Unemployment, poor education, disease, chronic drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, family breakdown, domestic violence and crime all come together in homelessness, a county official said Thursday.
And solutions to that problem lead to the clash of competing rights, needs and viewpoints: Public health and safety versus compassion for the less-fortunate, trespassing on private property versus education, the humanitarian horror of people living in the streets versus the right to live how one pleases.
But government agencies working with nonprofit organizations, medical providers, faith congregations and others can pool their resources and take small steps to keep the problem from growing, elected policy-makers agreed in an informal meeting of officials from Nevada County, Nevada City, Grass Valley and Truckee.
At least three other community meetings have taken place to discuss homelessness since the death of Billy Kelly under a bridge one subfreezing night last winter shocked the western county.
But Thursday’s gathering at the fire station on Sierra College Drive was the first time leaders from the four jurisdictions have gathered with law enforcement, fire and social service agencies to brainstorm what to do about it.
Grass Valley resident Diane Livingston was concerned about the danger to others caused by cooking and warming fires at the homeless camps that dot the county, she said.
“But how do you help ‘travelers,’ campers, for the benefit of the whole, and still be compassionate about it?” Livingston said.
In 2011, the three fire agencies that cover much of the western county — Grass Valley, Nevada City and Nevada County -Consolidated — fought 15 wildland fires that started at homeless camps, Consolidated Fire Chief Tim Fike said.
And each of the 20 or so times the agencies went out to investigate a report of smoke at the camps, it cost rate payers $25,000, Fike added.
Nationally, the cost of doing nothing at all to help homeless people lift themselves up costs up to $55,000 per homeless person yearly in responses by law enforcement, fire agencies and medical providers including hospitals, according to Nevada City Councilwoman Reinette Senum.
Helping homeless people survive could encourage more to come to Nevada County, some worried.
“We were on borrowed time with this last year,” county Sheriff’s Capt. Jeff Powell said. “We have to be careful about enabling camps because they may become larger. If we get a windy day (and a fire starts), we’re gong to be in some serious trouble.”
But getting homeless people the medical attention they need can get them on a path toward stability and permanent housing, said Dr. Frank “Junior” Lang of Western Sierra Medical Clinic Inc., the new owner of Miner’s Family Clinic in Grass Valley.
Reaching out to homeless families, children and emancipated foster youth needs to be a priority, many participants agreed.
“We need to reach those kids and break the cycle,” Grass Valley Mayor Janet Arbuckle said.
In the long term, homeless people who are helped to become stable could be trained for jobs that would support a healthy local economy, Senum said.
Meanwhile, in the short term, agencies need to work together to teach homeless people fire safety, Arbuckle said.
And agencies can work together to coordinate the many services already available to the homeless and those on the brink, participants agreed.
“Homelessness is really the intersection of the major social problems in society today,” said county Health and Human Services Director Jeff Brown. “No one government agency can tackle this on their own and have success.”
Joanna Robinson, a long-time advocate for the homeless and a cofounder of Hospitality House shelter, was encouraged by the meeting, she said.
“I feel there’s a real spirit of cooperation,” Robinson said.
Defining who are the homeless and launching a multi-faceted outreach to educate those who want to help is a good way to start, she said.
“It’s good to start small,” Robinson added.