Marissa Muscat: National Homelessness Awareness Week (opinion) | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Marissa Muscat: National Homelessness Awareness Week (opinion)

Marissa R. Muscat
Tribune Guest Column

With the expected onset of winter weather over the next few days, Nov. 12-20 is appropriately National Homelessness Awareness Week. Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless is proud to promote community awareness about homelessness in Tahoe and also meet the needs of our neighbors experiencing homelessness by providing safety, warm beds and access to vital support services.

Some people don't realize that homelessness in rural areas like ours appears different than in suburban and urban areas. The Housing Assistance Council published an excellent issue of "Rural Voices" in March of this year discussing the complexities of rural homelessness. One part stood out for me as particularly relatable to Tahoe: "Counties with entrenched poverty deal with homelessness regularly. But homelessness is also a constant in rural areas with popular recreational amenities and well-heeled seasonal residents, as economic booms inevitably lead to high rents, unaffordable to those in the service industries, seniors living on fixed incomes, and others."

Many of Tahoe's homeless individuals and those at risk of homelessness fit that description.

In part, this is because rural areas have fewer resources than larger metropolitan areas. El Dorado County historically receives less public dollars to address homelessness than any other county in California.

Organizations like Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and Tahoe Prosperity Center have highlighted our affordability gap — the average-household-income-to-home-value ratio in the Tahoe region is 10-to-1. That means that the average home cost is roughly 10 times higher than average annual household wages. San Francisco, by comparison, is 8-to-1. The ideal ratio would be 3-to-1.

In order to combat homelessness in a place like Tahoe, we need a living wage, affordable housing, and adequate income support for our vulnerable, disabled and elderly. We also need to continue to address related issues like transportation and health care. Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless applauds the work of groups like Tahoe Prosperity Center, Progress for Tahoe, El Dorado County Board of Supervisors and the Opportunity Knocks collaborative, along with many others who are working to address these issues.

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We have been reflecting on the accomplishments of the pilot season of the South Lake Tahoe Warm Room as we continue to gather more information about the homeless who live in our community. The statistics are staggering: we served 107 different individuals, including four families with children, for 1,820 shelter-bed nights. The Nomadic Shelter in Placerville served 193 people experiencing homelessness last winter. There were 269 individuals sleeping on the streets or in a shelter on the Point-In-Time Count in January 2015 in El Dorado County. Lake Tahoe Unified School District had 290 students who met criteria for homelessness in 2015-16, and Douglas County reported 166 in their schools in 2015.

But statistics don't tell the human stories. At the Warm Room, volunteer social workers assisted guests in obtaining identification like driver's licenses and birth certificates; provided referrals to the departments of Health and Human Services, Mental Health, and Public Health; shared information on affordable housing, substance abuse programs, and counseling services; and supported our guests in a variety of other ways.

One woman made connections through our volunteers to obtain work and found affordable housing in a studio apartment last month — she won't need the Warm Room this winter. Another couple who worked closely with our social workers was able to access services and find permanent housing; they plan to volunteer with us this season. A disabled gentleman was unable to afford his motel room during the holiday seasons when cost of a room doubles, so the Warm Room served as his safety net for two weeks last Christmas. It is for these neighbors that the Warm Room continues to provide a much-needed service to our community.

As we give thought to what we are thankful for this season, Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless wants to express our gratitude for all of our volunteers and for the generosity of the South Lake Tahoe community. We very much appreciate all of the love and support you have provided thus far.

We continue to need donations of supplies and funds. Please visit http://www.tahoehomeless.org or our Facebook page to learn more about donating or joining our fantastic volunteer team. We are in the process of securing a location for the upcoming season, so expect an announcement about our location and opening date in the coming weeks.

Marissa R. Muscat, M.D. is executive director of Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless and is employed as a hospitalist physician at Barton Memorial Hospital.

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