HOSTESS scrapped as county looks to comply with Housing First policy in homelessness solutions

Eric Jaramishian
Mountain Democrat

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to better reflect the Nov. 9 conversation regarding the HOSTESS program.

A plan for managed camping presented months ago to help El Dorado County’s homeless population came back for extensive discussion at the Nov. 9 Board of Supervisors’ meeting to address funding issues.

The HOSTESS program, which proposes a homeless encampment on a lot west of the El Dorado County Jail in Placerville, was the brainchild of county resident Liz Drummond. Tents would be provided for a maximum of 100 homeless with amenities such as showers, restrooms and laundry facilities.

On Aug. 10 supervisors agreed to move forward with the program and directed staff to identify funding sources for the proposed homeless encampment with an update by Aug. 31.

The idea was to quickly implement the encampment before the peak of California’s fire season, which came knocking on the county’s door Aug. 14 when the Caldor Fire hit, halting plans for the encampment, according to Chief Administrative Officer Don Ashton.

With fire season over Ashton on Tuesday said the purpose of the Nov. 9 discussion was for the board to decide whether they will move forward with the HOSTESS program despite legal and financial risks. If the board decided to move forward with the program despite these risks, Ashton recommended a revised timeline on implementing a campground, preferably before the start of the next fire season.

Homelessness prevention organization El Dorado Opportunity Knocks Continuum of Care Co-Chair Marissa Muscat told Health and Human Services Director Don Semon in writing Oct. 8 that after reaching out for funding it was confirmed the project is not compliant with California’s Housing First Policy, a homeless assistance approach that prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness, meaning that CoC funds from the Homeless Housing, Assistance and Prevention grant cannot be used toward the managed camp.

Muscat addressed the funding problem as early as Aug. 18 in an email to Semon.

“We understand that this proposal is well intended,” Muscat said. “But we cannot jeopardize the millions of dollars awarded to the CoC and to the county and must follow the direction of our funders.”

District 2 Supervisor George Turnboo suggested an alternative to emulate the city of Riverside’s adoption of pallet homes that supply shelter to homeless individuals, funded by the city itself.

Muscat stated the idea of implementing pallet homes could be a great addition to the Strategic Plan and that CoC will discuss solutions like pallet housing at their Nov. 15 meeting.

“It’s one of those short-term solutions until we can build long-term solutions, which I think is really important,” Muscat said.

She also stated the HOSTESS program is problematic because it does not meet the mission to end homelessness, is not compliant with state requirements and would need to be completely remade to make it compliant.

Muscat said it would be possible to make the HOSTESS program compliant with state and federal guidelines, but funding could not support the program as it stands now.

El Dorado County Sheriff John D’Agostini, who spoke before supervisors at Tuesday’s meeting, said there were plans to tweak the proposed program to meet legal requirements but he had to redirect his resources to fight the Caldor Fire.

D’Agostini said the updates and information that came to light at the meeting were “confusing” regarding the lack of support for HOSTESS after its initial approval in August, adding that nobody contacted his department to discuss how the county could make the program work.

“Instead it became very clear early on … that they were more interested in receiving the money than actually solving the problem,” D’Agostini said. “El Dorado Kindness actually put that in writing; they don’t want to jeopardize their $5.6 million in funding, therefore they could not support it.”

D’Agostini said it was clear to him that Semon was not in support of HOSTESS and that the board missed an opportunity to instruct Semon to support the efforts made by the Sheriff’s Office.

The sheriff noted a number of community members he has spoken to support the concept of HOSTESS and that the “Key” projects are not well-supported.

“The majority of your constituents do not want a hotel or other housing for homeless in their backyards,” D’Agostini said. “Nor do you because, if you did, we would be talking about putting it in El Dorado Hills or we would be buying property in Christmas Valley.”

D’Agostini said he was ready to end the HOSTESS effort but changed his mind, recognizing its importance and calling upon supervisors to be cooperative with the program.

“If you decide to let the homeless issue to continue in the same direction it has over the last decade, the next fire started in a homeless camp, the increased crime surrounding a homeless camp, (Room) Key or Home Key project, if a person, god forbid, or child gets stuck with a needle, the next rape that happens in a homeless camp, it will be on your conscience, not mine,” D’Agostini said, closing his comments to the board.

District 5 Supervisor Sue Novasel retaliated, saying D’Agostini’s comment was offensive.

“Don’t point a finger at me and tell me it’s someone else’s problem or that we are not trying to help because we are,” Novasel said. “There is not one person here who doesn’t want to see this work; it’s just how do you make it work.”

Semon said other jurisdictions have a more robust system of care for homelessness that can handle homeless encampments, something El Dorado County does not currently possess. He suggested the county focus on the strategic plan for homelessness and not pass up state or federal funding.

“For us to focus on managed camps distracts us, in my opinion, from dealing with transitional, supportive and permanent housing,” Semon said. “That’s where I think we should be focused. That’s where all the data and evidence of 25 years through CoC’s has shown to work. Housing first works (and) that’s not my opinion. Look at the data.”

Supervisors decided to not move forward with HOSTESS, voting unanimously on a motion to direct staff, in collaboration with CoC, to explore potential sites for a navigation center with an emergency shelter component and/or a pallet community, identify funding sources, leasing or purchase options and program details.

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