‘No easy solutions’: Warm Room closes after second season in South Lake Tahoe
May 15, 2017
On April 30, the South Shore's only homeless shelter closed its doors for the season. Around the same time, the city of South Lake Tahoe released a plan for dealing with the population that no longer has a consistent place to sleep at night.
"Last year, during the spring and summer months, the City received many complaints for homeless people causing safety and health problems in our parks and public areas," reads the bulletin posted on their website on April 28.
The post outlines a plan for the coming months in which a staff member of the Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless periodically checks areas where the homeless tend to congregate — Lakeview Commons, Campgrounds by the Lake, Heavenly Village, and the Transit Center by the Y — while handing out information on resources and informing them about public space regulations.
The city said it would work with officials from the Warm Room to help expand its outreach in order to get more volunteers for this effort.
In its second year of operation, the Warm Room has brought the topic of homelessness on Lake Tahoe's South Shore to the forefront.
"The Warm Room makes the topic of homelessness more obvious. Whether you have strong feelings for or against it, it makes you talk about it. Those homeless individuals are still out there whether the Warm Room is in effect or not," said Dr. Sonia Rupp, a Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless board member and psychiatrist with Barton Health.
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In its first season in operation, the Warm Room provided shelter for 107 guests and averaged 18 guests per night. This year, there were 125 individuals who used shelter with an average of 26 guests per night.
This does not necessarily mean there are more homeless people in South Lake Tahoe. It could be due to the fact that this winter in the central Sierra Nevada saw up to 199 percent above normal snowpack and sleeping outside was not an option.
But San Francisco, Sacramento and other cities across California have seen an uptick in homeless — by 3 percent between 2015 and 2016 — according to data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) annual assessment of homeless in the United States.
"There are no easy solutions," said Rupp.
"For a small community we have a lot of different agencies that work together and really try to provide mental health and substance-use support for all our community, but there are cuts in all programs," continued Rupp. "For instance we don't have a rehab facility like we used to in the past. So a lot of what we rely on and for the Warm Room would be El Dorado Mental Health Center and their wellness groups and substance use groups."
According to a survey conducted in the Warm Room this season of 91 guests, 16 individuals indicated alcohol or substance abuse as the primary reason for homelessness. Other high-ranking reasons included inability to find a job or pay rent, relationship problems, abuse and mental illness.
Nationwide, HUD estimates that 26 percent of homeless adults staying in shelters live with serious mental illness, while approximately 46 percent live with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorders.
"Even nationwide it's tough to assess the exact estimate of mental illness, especially when substance abuse is so comorbid that it can blur the picture," said Rupp.
Dr. Lance Orr, emergency physician and Barton Hospital's director of emergency services, said they see homeless individuals in the ER almost daily.
"The majority of homeless patients we see in the emergency department are due to a complication from substance abuse. … Substance abuse issues may be the result of self-medicating for depression or other mental health issues," said Orr.
While some patients are transferred to a mental health facility in Placerville for inpatient treatment of "suicidal ideation," others do not meet the criteria and must be referred to outpatient services locally, according to Orr.
"Unfortunately, there is a high 'no show' appointment rate for this population," he added.
Though the Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless provides assistance to its guests in accessing mental health and substance abuse, finding housing in a town that has multi-year waiting lists on affordable housing units is difficult.
El Dorado County, however, is beginning to gain momentum with its Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH) and the PATH Grant Program, which has been subcontracted to the West Slope-based organization Only Kindness. Some homeless individuals with jobs from the Warm Room may qualify for the program's rapid rehousing initiative, which helps eligible individuals find housing and secure first and last months rent.
"El Dorado County has what is known as a Continuum of Care, or a CoC, which is a regional planning body that promotes a community-wide commitment to the goal of ending homelessness," said Margaret Williams, health program manager at El Dorado County.
"El Dorado's CoC has been functioning for a few years, and is building momentum to expand its system response to homelessness."
Williams said they are working to launch a website that will showcase services and programs offered throughout the county.
"A priority of the CoC for the next year will be to seek adequate funding to support a coordinated response to homelessness in El Dorado County," said Williams.
For now, the young organizations must celebrate the little victories when it comes to homelessness in South Lake Tahoe.
"We did have some success in getting at least a quarter of the group at the Warm Room to agree to stay on Tuesday mornings for the substance counseling this season," said Rupp. "And we were able to refer one person to rehab while they were here. That felt like an accomplishment, too."
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