Are homeless people flocking to Tahoe because of the Warm Room? |

Are homeless people flocking to Tahoe because of the Warm Room?

Claire Cudahy
The panel at the Tahoe Regional Young Professionals Town Hall agreed that the Warm Room is not attracting more homeless people to the region.
Claire Cudahy / Tahoe Daily Tribune |

Over the course of its two seasons in operation, the Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless’ Warm Room has brought the topic of homelessness to the forefront in South Lake Tahoe. While some say the shelter is a welcome service that addresses a pressing issue, others insist it’s attracting and maintaining a growing homeless population.

But according to a panel of experts at the Aug. 30th Tahoe Regional Young Professionals Town Hall on homelessness, this claim is not true.

“My data does not support that,” said panelist and Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless Executive Director Dr. Marissa Muscat. “Our guests are largely local. Eighty-seven percent of our guests were living on the South Shore when they became homeless. This is similar to the national number of 88 percent.”

Muscat said that to be considered “local” by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition, a person must have held a permanent residence on the South Shore for 90 days or more prior to becoming homeless.

Last year, the percentage of local guests at the winter shelter was 86. The lowest number on record is for San Francisco where the homeless population is 71 percent local.

“People who experience homelessness have been in this community since long before the Warm Room opened. The whole reason the Warm Room exists is because people in this community saw that need,” said Muscat.

In its second season, the Warm Room served 148 individuals, and of those, only 26 were people who had used the shelter the year prior.

Fellow panelist Dr. Benjamin Henwood, a clinical social worker and co-author of the “Housing First: Ending Homelessness, Transforming Systems, and Changing Lives,” said the so-called “magnet effect” is often cited as a reason for not implementing good homeless services.

“There is no evidence to show that that has really occurred in different places,” said Henwood. “What little has been looked at from a research perspective is that the reason people move is for the same reason that anybody else does — for family, for jobs, for opportunities. Most people don’t identify as homeless then look for the best place to be homeless, and the data usually supports that.”

“They are not just going to come here to Tahoe to live in a shelter,” added Cheyanne Lane, supportive services coordinator with Tahoe Youth & Family Services. “It’s not a glamorous place to be in a shelter. You’re bunking with 20 other people. It’s not fun.”

So far each year the shelter has moved to a new location because they can’t sign a long-term lease. The shelter operates anywhere from three to four months during the winter, depending on funding. The bare-bones setup includes rows of fold-up cots, a shower and a place to do laundry.

“If you’ve been to the Warm Room, it provides a warm bed and a cup of noodles. It is not a resort experience. It is a basic need that we are fulfilling, and I believe that it’s important to fulfill it regardless of why someone comes or why someone becomes homeless,” said Muscat.

At this time, there are no plans to keep the shelter open year-round.

“We are a very early, grassroots organization and our goal is to continue functioning at the level that we are functioning to maintain ourselves and to not burn out our volunteers, my employees and our community.”

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