Sierra Community House: Building a community for a better tomorrow in Lake Tahoe
INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. – Lake Tahoe is known as a destination location to people all over the world, but for the people who live in the area year round, it’s considered to be home. Underneath the vacation haven that is the basin are thriving communities looking to support their residents.
There are plenty of challenges that come with living in a mountain town, including high densities of empty second homes and short term rentals leaving long term residents struggling to find a place to live, along with the growing need for food and mental health resources.
To combat these challenges in the basin, the non-profit agency Sierra Community House was created.
“Sierra Community House was created in 2019,” said Executive Director Paul Bancroft. “It was a result of the merging of long standing social service organizations in the community.”
Sierra Community House encompasses a wide variety of social services on the north shore and in the Truckee area, bringing together Project Mana which is focused on hunger relief, Tahoe Safe Alliance which is focused on domestic and sexual violence and child abuse, and the North Tahoe Family Resource Center and the Family Resource Center of Truckee.
The decision to come together under one organization allowed collaboration to continue at a much higher level.
“We took the four organizations and basically put them into program buckets,” said Bancroft.
The ‘buckets’ include, but aren’t limited to, the Crisis Team, which serves people experiencing domestic or sexual violence, the emergency shelter program, which offers long term or short term shelter to people in need, and the Family Strengthening Program, which provides support to families while helping parents build connections with the community and their children.
In addition, the agency is able to provide legal mediation and support around immigration, landlord and tenant issues, and labor laws.
“We contract with local attorneys who will provide representation as we do not actually provide representation in court,” said Bancroft. “But we provide preparation and support and all other areas connected to that.”
Sierra Community House is also able to provide general assistance when needed, whether that be through rental or utility assistance, helping people navigate through the various other agencies in the basin, and providing food assistance for those experiencing food insecurity.
“All of our program areas intersect,” said Bancroft. “Somebody who’s experiencing a challenging time in their life, there’s often multiple things that are connected to that. And if we can provide support in a variety of ways, the idea is that we will be more successful and the community members will be more successful.
“We’re not just addressing one issue and then saying, ‘Okay, now you have to go to this other organization for food, now you go to this organization for financial assistance…’ It’s all happening under one roof.”
This year, Sierra Community House was able to put together their first strategic plan as a merged group of entities, which was put on hold due to COVID and scaling up quickly in order to meet the needs of the community.
“We’re now coming out of that and in a place of, ‘What is our vision for the next one, two, three, five years as an organization?'” said Bancroft. “We have a three year strategic plan. So year one starting now is really dialing in and perfecting the systems we have internally.”
The dream in programming is to not only be reactive but proactive with services. This means not just providing hunger relief, but providing education locally about healthy food. It means providing education to community members, to other agencies, and to people who are looking for services.
“It’s a more holistic approach,” said Bancroft. “The goal ultimately is people only have to tell their story one time and then they start getting connected to services. We really look at it from a trauma-informed lens in a way in which we can serve the whole person and not just one part of the person based on what they’re experiencing.”
With so many facets of Sierra Community House at work, there are tons of people being helped on a daily basis, with all ages being reached, from high schoolers to families and senior citizens.
Prevention Begins Here
There are multiple people who work on the prevention team with Sierra Community House, ranging from volunteers who work with the hunger relief team to deliver and serve food, to people who are working day in and day out to help community members and tourists who need services.
Community Education and Outreach Organizer of the Close to Home program Lauren DeRosa specifically works with youth groups and prevention groups to raise awareness in local communities and help educate the youth of the north shore.
“Our goal is to raise awareness and provide prevention strategies to our community about domestic violence and sexual assault,” said DeRosa.
DeRosa was brought to the position because she is passionate about impacting the next generation, and had previously worked with youth in preventative education.
“I knew that I had already experienced what it’s like to see prevention measures being taken in a community and how important it is no matter what area we work in,” said DeRosa. “I think that prevention is the first step in being able to end these kinds of issues that we have in our community, and for us, it’s ending domestic violence and sexual assault.”
There are multiple ways that DeRosa and her team are able to help the community, ranging from running a youth group called Teen Peace Project that spreads awareness and teaches the core foundations of safe and healthy relationships, to going into schools and leading prevention programs.
In the first quarter of 2023, the Community Education and Prevention program facilitated approximately 75 violence prevention presentations with 1,100 students in local schools.
“As intervention is doing their work to actively ensure people have the resources that they need, prevention is kind of following behind to educate people,” said DeRosa. “Even though we’d like to be at the forefront and making sure that it stops in that case, that’s really not possible.”
While it isn’t as picturesque as one would think, statistics show that one out of every three people in South Lake Tahoe communities could or are experiencing domestic assault or sexual assault.
In the year 2022, the Sierra Community House team provided 677 community members with sexual-assault related services through advocacy, peer-counseling, safety planning, and support through their 24-hour helpline.
“Domestic violence and sexual assault happens everyday,” said DeRosa. “But I think that being in a small mountain town that is used to tourism and very much still has ski and board culture instilled in it, it leads to some outdated ideas.”
The need for education and prevention in mountain towns, especially in the Lake Tahoe basin, is beyond important, given that many don’t want to assume that a small community could experience these types of assaults.
Sierra Community House’s program Close To Home is funded by the California Department of Public Health, and allows DeRosa’s team to focus on needs close to home.
“So we’re sending out surveys, we’re canvassing, and then we’re taking that information and coming up with long-term sustainable projects that are able to raise awareness and continue that education work,” said DeRosa.
Advocacy at All Levels
Advocacy is another huge way that Sierra Community House works for the community. Through multiple partnerships with local hospitals, school districts, and law enforcement, it’s critical to connect anyone who needs help the best way staff can.
“We are trained to understand and help these people with a trauma-informed and survivor focused approach, which is really helpful and it helps our volunteers that are participating in these preventative measures feel supported,” said DeRosa.
Crisis Advocacy Manager Andrea Chapman is on the forefront of the advocacy side of work done at the agency. Her job entails supervising the 24 hour community helpline, along with supervising the crisis advocacy program that works with domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse survivors, as well as people seeking domestic violence education and emergency assistance.
Currently, she has three full time advocates and a help-line coordinator working with her, as is often at capacity of their workload. In addition, the team has two community hotel partners that provide emergency housing for those who need it.
“Which just shows the need there that we need two of them,” said Chapman. “We probably put someone up at least every month, if not a couple people every month.”
Oftentimes, people are connected to help through the crisis hotline, which serves as the first point of contact with many people seeking services.
Manager of the Mediation and Legal Assistance program Ana Guerrero noted that all services are offered in English and in Spanish, which helps people who might not have known how to navigate different agencies in the basin.
“Just being able to hold their hand through that process is really giving for me because otherwise they wouldn’t have decided to move forward,” said Guerrero.
Guerrero is in charge of supervising staff from the legal program, including the immigration program. Her team’s services focus on legal, civil, family, and sometimes domestic violence cases.
“My role is to support our clients with understanding the court process, understanding what they are seeking from the courts, and how to properly file the case with our court system,” said Guerrero.
Guerrero noted that there is a high need for their services for many reasons, one of which being that legal attainment can be extremely expensive.
“Not everyone can hire an attorney,” said Guerrero. “So being able to guide someone on that legal process for no cost of service to our community members is a great way to be able to help someone get out of a not safe relationship or be able to get their custody orders in place.”
Assessing the Needs of Tahoe Communities
DeRosa, Chapman, and Guerrero all agreed that there are many needs to be met for the community, including access to affordable mental health services, along with access to affordable housing.
While Sierra Community House is limited in how they can support affordable housing initiatives, they often find themselves helping families who can’t afford rent increases, and families who have found themselves evicted.
“I always find myself asking, ‘What is affordable housing in our area?’ It’s a tourist town,” said Guerrero. “Everything is pricier and rents are pricer too. But is that realistic with the kind of income that our community members earn?
“So just trying to find that balance around housing I think would be needed for our community members to be able to afford housing and not have to use all of their income on just rent and then have to decide, ‘Do I pay rent? Do I buy food? Do I pay childcare? Do I pay my child support?'”
Not only does it cause added stress to families, but it also forces people out of the area, causing them to commute to work but be disconnected from their community.
Additionally, the team has seen tenants that will put up with terrible conditions out of fear of losing that housing for speaking up.
“If there’s no affordable options and you’re in a spot where people aren’t following the law or you’re in substandard living conditions because housing is so unattainable here, you’re just going to put up with whatever you put up with,” said Chapman. “I think a lot of times the legal program sees that too. People might be seeing increasing rent and things like that, but there’s also people out there that are exploiting tenants because they know they can get away with it.”
Chapman believes there is a ripple effect due to the years of not being able to find affordable housing that drives people to violence and poverty that can have lasting effects.
“There’s such a cycle that promotes it,” said Chapman. “You don’t have good mental health, or maybe it’s a strain on your relationship. And then we start to see violence, and if we can’t fix at least one of these things, maybe we can stop the cycle, or at least slow it down.”
One way Chapman’s program is able to assist is through the Rapid Rehousing Grant, which allows staff to help California survivors find, secure, and maintain housing.
“We do that by long-term rental assistance, security deposits, furniture assistance, utilities assistance,” said Chapman. “We talk to the landlords. We can guarantee payment from us and then work with a community member to set financial goals.”
Overall, Champan’s team is able to act as a middle man between a tenant and a landlord while Guerrero’s team is able to assist in any legal services needed.
People in need are able to call the 24-helpline, or walk in to receive services in person.
Getting Involved Starts Here
Volunteers are one way that Sierra Community House is able to thrive and help community members, and they’re always looking for more help.
“Right now, volunteers are amazing and heavily utilized in our hunger relief program,” said Bancroft. “So they’re providing help filling food bags, they deliver to community members throughout our region.”
Other ways to get involved are volunteering at events hosted by the agency, including their annual fundraisers like the Chocolate and Wine Festival, along with working with community members through their crisis intervention hotline, which requires training beforehand.
“Our helpline program also needs volunteers,” said Chapman. “Staff who are already in crisis and legal and family support actually take on extra work after hours to maintain this… We will guide you through it. We will work with you. We will train you.”
Volunteers are also heavily relied on for Project Mana, which addresses food insecurities on the north shore.
There are three distributions of food per week; Tuesdays in Truckee, Wednesdays in Kings Beach, and Thursday in Incline Village. In addition, on Thursdays, volunteers will deliver groceries to north shore residents who opt out for the service.
Monday and Friday serve as days to order food from local grocers, along with receiving donations from local bakeries and grocery stores. The team also has partnerships with the Food Bank of Nevada and Food Bank of Northern Nevada.
In the summers, partnerships with Slow Food Tahoe and the local non-profit community garden are also utilized, providing fresh food throughout the warmer seasons.
“Pre COVID, we were mostly people coming to receive food in person, and then we kind of pivoted to have more deliveries through COVID,” said Director of Hunger Relief Operations Patrick Kratzer. “But Wednesday is still a walkup distribution, which is amazing. We really like to have a lot of face time with the community members and you can just tell it’s a really strong community base there in Kings Beach.”
Food relief services coordinate about 50 volunteers per week, who primarily help distribute food on a weekly basis.
Kratzer is thrilled to be able to provide financial relief through food distributions in a rising economy and stressful times in the basin.
“We’re really trying to provide healthy food options for community members,” said Kratzer. “I think it’s just great knowing that this resource is available to have a healthy food option for people who are going through food insecurity.”
While the majority of distribution is still home delivery, there are still anywhere between 150-200 people who will come pick-up food in person.
“It’s the best part of the job by far,” said Kratzer. “Getting to know community members, it’s been amazing. Of course it’s super rewarding, the work of actually handing off the bag. Folks who come in person get a little more selection, so it’s awesome to be able to offer a choice.”
With the cost of living rising, the impact on what people can afford to eat has risen, especially when it comes to health food options.
“I think we’re serving a really important need here,” said Kratzer. “It’s almost food as medicine when you’re giving really healthy, fresh produce to folks who wouldn’t be able to afford it otherwise and how critical that is to the health of our community.”
Breaking the Stigma One Step at a Time
One of the greatest challenges that Sierra Community House staff face is breaking the stigma against conversations around the situations they face on a daily basis.
“I think the big thing is, it doesn’t have to be such a quiet situation where we’re not talking about it,” said DeRosa. “Whether that’s because of the shame that this occurs in our community, or the shame that it’s happening to people as well, and that people don’t want to speak up because everyone knows everyone. So creating waves in the community, I don’t think that should be viewed as a bad thing.”
While it takes true passion to dedicate your life to advocacy and prevention, being open to a conversation with someone who may need help is the first true step in making a difference.
Whether it’s a friend looking for help with rent assistance or a neighbor looking for food, Sierra Community House will be there to take care of anyone who walks through their door in need.
“I think that just being a part of Sierra Community House in one way or another kind of shows you that reality of yes, it’s beautiful,” said Guerrero. “There’s lakes, there’s mountains, there’s snow, but then there’s also this other stuff happening in the background, and just being able to get your foot in the door and learn other people’s situations; I think that is just what makes the community whole.”
Ways that community members can support survivors is through listening and leaving room for an open conversation, and believing survivors.
“Just being able to walk in someone’s shoes for a split second and treat them the way you want to be treated,” said Guerrero, “I think a lot of that humanity in us has to kick in when we are doing this kind of work.”
DeRosa pointed out that just because Lake Tahoe is filled with all kinds of people at different levels of wealth, it only takes one moment to change someone’s life forever.
“Violence doesn’t discriminate,” said DeRosa. “It takes a lot to admit to these things that we still as a society and through societal norms, view as shameful and something to feel guilty about, even though it’s not the survivors fault, and there should be more respect for them for even asking for legal services, asking even just to speak. Even just calling our hotline takes a lot of courage and it’s completely okay to ask for help sometimes.”
While sometimes it can be hard to have these types of conversations, it overall helps the health of the communities which in turn helps Lake Tahoe thrive. Everyday is a new opportunity to spread awareness and learn something new, whether you’re visiting for the week or you’re living here long term.
So where do we start? How did we build that empathy in our communities?
“I think empathy starts with a person checking their own personal biases that they carry, right?” said Chapman. “Being able to put yourself in check and acknowledge experiences and biases that you have, and then be able to listen to people and their stories, and understand that it’s their story and that’s how they feel, and they’re totally entitled to that.”
To learn more about Sierra Community House and the work they are doing, visit sierracommunityhouse.org.
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