No direction home
Lake Tahoe’s falling temperatures and rising property values have been felt by more than those with a roof over their heads.
Winter in Tahoe can be the harshest on the homeless population, a steady segment of people who live in the brush and abandoned motels like the Sandor Chateau, recently remodeled for Sierra Recovery Center’s move, and the demolished Carousel Inn damaged by fire.
Law enforcement estimates 20 to 25 people represent the permanent South Shore homeless, but a large number of drifters hop sofas and vacant rooms, or leave the area like second homeowners. Many who stay in the area move from one spot to another from night to night. Some are mentally ill or under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Others seek a better life and boast of conditions changing.
Such is the case of a man who identified himself as Nick Jackson during a patrol sweep with city police Officer Johnny Poland on Wednesday morning. Officers have conducted periodic sweeps since two fires erupted a few years ago behind Motel 6 and the city’s bike trail where the 25-year-old man was camped out early Wednesday morning.
Law enforcement knows where they are to inform them of the law, which prohibits camping outside a camp site within the city limits. Law enforcement’s main concern is the campfires used for cooking that can get out of control. A verbal warning may be followed by a misdemeanor citation.
“Hey brother,” Poland said, approaching the man. He sat up quickly.
The man said he was on a week-long trip around the lake.
“I’ve been going through some crazy stuff and thought I’d enjoy Tahoe before I left on my way out,” he said, while lying on the ground and huddled in a blanket with his Labrador-mix, Ninja. The dog serves as his space heater as the nip in the air fills the nights. Jackson said he’s headed south toward Mexico.
He described a bad setting where he lived, filled with drug abuse and sporadic, seasonal work.
“I want a simple life. I don’t mind having a job,” he said. It appeared that way. He travels with a backpack, bongo drum and “a little money.” People at campgrounds have handed him food.
“I’m cutting myself from cooked food anyway,” he said, adding his dog eats half of his food.
Being that he’s lived on the streets before as a self-proclaimed runaway, Jackson said the homeless life doesn’t bother him like it used to in a crime-infested urban environment like Washington, D.C., where he once lived. He said he worries more about coyotes attacking Ninja.
“My puppy’s my child,” he said.
Another man camped out off D Street behind the city offices on Tata Lane is more concerned with getting a job and getting on his feet, he said while bundled up in a blanket. Black dress shoes and a backpack lie next to his blanket. The man, who shall be called “Ed,” said he was preparing to find a restroom to wash up in and get something to eat at Christmas Cheer, a charitable organization that assisted 47 families and individuals in August, coordinator Joanne Shope reported.
Those who work with the homeless cite varying degrees and reasons for the condition. According to the county’s homeless program coordinator Paula Lambdin, some can’t get get to Tahoe because there isn’t a bus service while others can’t leave because they’ve lost their money. A cluster of people are stuck living week-to-week in motels unable to save money.
Working the problem
Beyond Christmas Cheer, a handful of local churches provide meals for those in need in Tahoe.
El Dorado County Assistant District Attorney Hans Uthe takes part in a cooperative court program out of the mental health department that focuses more on positive reinforcement than punishment. TOPS, which stands for Tahoe Opportunity Project, has periodic meetings about care plans for those who are mentally ill and on the streets.
“It can be very serious because of the fire danger,” Uthe said. For that, jail time could run as much as six months and fines as high as $2,000. But that’s not the common remedy.
“Fines for the homeless are irrelevant,” he said.
Uthe would like to see a facility where alcoholics on the street have a sobering-up facility.
John Litwinovich, El Dorado County’s director of human services, agrees more can be done. He said homelessness is a chronic issue in the region. The county offers food stamps, MediCal assistance and Section 8 housing vouchers to help pay for rent. But those services don’t go far enough.
He expects the county to launch a “continuum of care” program within the next six months aimed at adding resources to the problem of having enough adequate shelter.
“Our challenge has become (those) people new to the community. Despite all the services, we recognize an unmet need,” he said. “During the summer months, people go to the campgrounds throughout the county.”
In winter, Douglas County’s social services housing advocates notice an influx of people who enter the program, but it’s unclear how many come from the lake. Department coordinator Christine Murphy believes 95 percent of the homeless are Douglas County residents who find themselves in need based on economic issues like high energy costs.
“A lot of times it’s a short-term situation,” she said.
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