El Dorado team educating, helping homeless find resources
Tahoe Daily Tribune
As fire season approaches in a drought year, members of the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office Homeless Outreach Team are extra alert to the dangers that an improperly maintained cook fire can bring.
Illegal fires are responsible for upwards of 90% of wildfires in the Tahoe Basin. Both the 2007 Angora fire, which consumed 3,100 acres, including 242 residences and 67 commercial structures, and the 2001 Martis fire, which burned 14,500 acres, started from illegal fires.
Many such fires are started in remote areas of the backcountry by hikers. These are especially irksome not only because they are in areas where fires are prohibited, but because they pull firefighting resources off lightning-caused fires, which are a regular occurrence.
The few wildfires that started in homeless encampments produced a major impetus for starting the HOT team in mid 2017, said Sgt. Anthony Prencipe with the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office.
The HOT team’s mission is to find homeless people and, once they’re found, to help them learn about and gain access to the community resources available to them such as subsidized housing, unemployment benefits and social security income. The team also helps people get personal identification. Not having ID is a major impediment to qualifying for services.
Providing these outreach services helps not only the homeless people, it protects the community at large, said Prencipe.
“Wildfires are a major threat to our community. When we started this program, one of the things we focused on was cooking fires and warming fires not being properly maintained,” he said. “In our first year, there was a significant reduction in fires started.”
Now, the four-person team (which includes one sergeant and two deputies from the sheriff’s office and one Placerville Police Department officer) must face the possibility of an uptick in homelessness. COVID-19 cost many people their jobs, and could result in more homelessness, though community organizations have been distributing rent assistance and a temporary moratorium on evictions is in place in California and Nevada.
In recent weeks, there has been a slight uptick in homelessness in the area the HOT team covers, but as of now, it’s unclear what the causes are, said Prencipe.
“It’s unknown if it’s people being displaced from other areas or if they are moving with the weather,” he said.
Beginning a year ago, the HOT team has used an all-terrain vehicle to get to some of the more remote encampments to meet with people, said Prencipe.
“These were a few areas where we know they had cooking fires and warming fires,” he said. “Most (homeless people) stay pretty close to city hubs. They need to be around food, they need to be around water. But there are a few living farther out.”
Though there is a penalty for starting an illegal campfire — which can be up to $5,000 — it isn’t always their first choice when dealing with the problem.
“Most of the time, it may not work to give them a citation, but sometimes it does. You’ve got to use all your options,” he said.
Meeting with people who may have had negative experiences with authority is part of the job, he added, but that’s nothing new or different for team members.
“We all have special training in dealing with all kinds of people,” he said. “We all learn to meet with people who can be scared of us or angry at us. Relationship-building is a typical law-enforcement skill set.”
Even with a relationship in place, team members have encountered what at first was an unexpected problem. They would set an appointment to bring someone to the Department of Motor Vehicles, for example, and the person wouldn’t show up.
“If a person doesn’t have a cell phone,” he said, “they might not know what day it is.”
The team’s essential goal is educating people about services that are available to them but which they may not know about or know how to access, explained Prencipe.
“In California and in the United States, there is an issue of people not being able to find an affordable home. Arresting people wasn’t fixing it,” he said. “We wanted to find a positive step of fixing the problem, and that is using the resources available to help them get back on their feet.”
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With a season-dictated, tourist-based economy, the North Lake Tahoe workforce faced longstanding affordable housing issues long before Zoom’s subscription fees replaced Bay Area commuters’ bridge tolls.