Homeless fire

Much of the public’s focus on homelessness recently has been on negative events, most notably a fire in the early morning hours near the vacant building on the corner of Schober Avenue and Highway 49. The fire, allegedly started by a homeless man named Jay Walters, spewed flames high into the air and melted bottles and a shopping cart. Sutter Creek Police initially responded to the incident until Jackson Police had an available officer. Through the course of the investigation, officials found surveillance video pointing toward Walters, who is known to JPD through consistent, repeated contacts according to JPD Chief Christopher Mynderup.

The Amador County Homeless Task Force’s September meeting was primarily centered around acquiring funding for various projects to address the county’s homelessness, albeit with a tinge of tension as several local homeless brought their perspectives to the table.

Without a homeless plan, Amador County will have difficulty acquiring funds for varying projects, including permanent supportive housing for adults with serious mental health problems and seriously emotionally disturbed children with families.

Once a plan is in place, Amador could be eligible for $500,000 in non-competitive funds and an additional $20 million per project in competitive money. The housing constructed with these funds would likely be low barrier, meaning tenants wouldn’t be screened out based on existing conditions like alcoholism and drug addiction. The ACHTF’s meeting on Thursday, September 26 was the first of many to come and no determination has been made in regard to the housing type, model, size of the units or even a location or sponsor.

Residents of the proposed permanent supportive housing would not have a time limit on how long they could reside in the development. While living there, they would be linked with resources to build life skills and counselling while maintaining a standard lease agreement and paying rent. Tenants would also be required to adhere to the rules of the complex, like any other housing complex, or they could face termination of their lease.

Sherry Morgado, a representative of the housing and community development consulting firm Housing Tools, stated that permanent supportive housing is a long-term and cost-effective way to address homelessness with a track record of breaking the homelessness cycle. Morgado went on to state that these types of developments tend to translate to cost-savings for the community, as well, an assertion supported by several research reports. Two such reports, one by RAND Corporation and another by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, claim these cost savings come through reduced use of emergency and other services by the homeless population.

Another report, however, from the National Academies Press published in 2018, states that while permanent supportive housing positively disrupts the homelessness cycle, it doesn’t necessarily translate to improvements in resident’s conditions. The report elaborated that there appears not to be much difference between those in this type of housing and people simply receiving treatment toward improving the “severity of mental health symptoms, self-rated mental health status, community integration, or degree of recovery.”

It goes on to cite these results may be flawed due to various factors, such as differences in services offered and the difficult nature of mental illness. During her presentation, Morgado referenced an apartment complex in Chico, the Valley View Apartments. The total price tag on the facility was $5,740,080 and houses 14 tenants and one on-site manager. Jackson Resident Ed Bass brought up concerns with the cost of the build, breaking down the total by number of residents. He reached a nearly $80 million sticker for Amador’s 180 homeless, according to a Point in Time count data sheet provided, for a similar construction.

PIT count data received from the Central Sierra Continuum of Care places Amador’s homeless count at 214 people. Based on the $5.7 million price tag, that’s $410,005.71 per person or $87,741,221.90 for a 214-person facility. For strictly 180 people, the cost comes in at $73,801,028.50, but neither total includes operational costs or the expenditures associated with the on-site manager. Morgado admitted these projects are expensive and construction costs have gone up since the Valley View Apartments had been built.

She also noted there is a lot of funding available for these types of projects and renovating an existing building may translate to cost savings. As the meeting continued, multiple attendees pointed out that permanent supportive housing would only serve approximately 26 percent of Amador’s homeless population, since this type of housing is reserved for those with serious mental illness. A draft summary report of the homeless population provided at the meeting showed that 26 percent of the 180 listed homeless reported mental illness and 24 percent reported disabilities.

It also showed 39 percent reported chronic homelessness, 20 percent reported substance use disorders, 10 percent reported being veterans and 27 percent are survivors of domestic abuse. The draft summary went on to state the percentages were based on answers to survey questions and noted the results may be flawed due undercounts and various challenges in data collection – finding the homeless, their willingness to participate, etc.

“If you’re going to set goals for all the people, why wouldn’t you have a plan for all of the people,” said John Murphy, President of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. “It doesn’t seem right that you would set goals for people that you don’t have a funding source to provide assistance to. … I think it’s unfair to put the county at risk, in a sense … even if you include all of the mentally ill and all of the substance abuse, that’s only 46 percent of the people. That’s not even half of the people, our homeless.”

The ACHTF plans to collect and analyze data between October and December, with a draft plan ready to review in March 2020. If all goes accordingly, the task force will present the draft to the Board of Supervisors in April 2020 and aim to submit the approved plan later the same month. Task Force member Michele Curran noted that despite having supervisors in the task force, they had a difficult time conveying the urgency of the homeless situation and the necessity to address it instead of doing nothing.

Lack of action, loss of resources creates tension

As public comment continued, a long-time local homeless man, only identified as Brian, addressed the crowd and took aim at the City of Jackson.

“The City of Jackson has blocked or turned off every publicly accessible power outlet in town, which effectively cuts me off from all of the resources I need to change my situation,” Brian said. “I can’t call my doctors; I can’t call SSI. There could be someone out there dying right now because they can’t call 911 with a dead phone.”

Brian also brought up the closure of the public restrooms at the 49er parking area, citing one of the reasons he had heard for closing the bathrooms was needles left behind and criminal activity. He explained that he didn’t know anything about the criminal activity, but shutting down the bathrooms was not a solution because it left the homeless without anywhere to go to the bathroom. Brian went on to suggest a Sharps container to improve safety versus just shutting down the restrooms.

Mayor Bob Stimpson pointed out that Jackson didn’t have the money to constantly repair the restrooms. So, as a solution, shut them down at night to lessen the damage and cost associated with repairs. A second homeless man, only identified as Zeek, also addressed the room. He stated the lack of accessible power outlets has made it difficult to keep his phone charged so he can be reached by any of his employers. District 4 Supervisor Frank Axe addressed both Zeek and Brian, asking them if they had gone to the Sierra Winds Wellness Center where they can charge their phones.

Brian stated he doesn’t typically go there, noting the Jackson Public Library was an option. However, a homeless woman, who didn’t identify herself, stated the library asked them not to congregate near the entrance. The woman went on to state the lack of transportation or being ill makes it difficult to get to Sierra Wind and expressed frustration with Jackson, as well. She recounted her efforts to give back to the city, cleaning up city property before being told to stop and relocating to the cemetery. Additionally, the woman stated after a short time, the water she was using to water the cemetery’s rose bushes and clean the grounds was capped off.

“To cap that water off was an insult,” said the unidentified homeless woman. “I threw my rake and broom down and left the piles there for them to clean up because I’m not gonna go up there anymore and sweat like that. That was my safe place to be and that was where I was comfortable at and now I don’t have that.”

Jackson Police Sergeant Jose Arevalos chimed in, referring to instances where damages were caused and noted people tend to classify the group by the actions of a few. He also urged everyone needed to take some responsibility for the way things have played out thus far. He stated that he consistently talks to members of the homeless population and urges them to assist Jackson Police in identifying those responsible for ruining things for the many.

“I know Zeek, I know Brian and they know me,” said Arevalos, “I know most of the people that are homeless in our city because I come in contact with them on a daily basis. … A lot of the times, the changes that happen, we have to accept some of the responsibility, as well. We don’t start on the left and end on the right because nothing happened.”

Much of the public’s focus on homelessness recently has been on negative events, most notably a fire in the early morning hours near the vacant building on the corner of Schober Avenue and Highway 49. The fire, allegedly started by a homeless man named Jay Walters, spewed flames high into the air and melted bottles and a shopping cart. Sutter Creek Police initially responded to the incident until Jackson Police had an available officer. Through the course of the investigation, officials found surveillance video pointing toward Walters, who is known to JPD through consistent, repeated contacts according to JPD Chief Christopher Mynderup.

No damage was done to the building itself and Walters was booked into jail, where he remains pending a court date, on arson, vandalism and violating his probation. He is also suspected in connection with another fire near Sutter Amador Hospital, but the investigation remains ongoing. Many locals have also expressed concern and frustration over a homeless man in Pine Grove, consistently seen ambling across the intersection at Highway 88 and Ridge Road.

Additionally, Mel and Faye’s Diner owner Bart Gillman had a recent encounter with an allegedly homeless man. While gone for the weekend, his home surveillance system alerted him that someone was at his home. Amador County Sheriff’s deputies responded within 3 minutes, but none-the-less has Gillman concerned, having found a syringe on his property possibly used by the man just before ACSO’s arrival.

“We want wrongdoers to be placed in a position where they can no longer harm anything, even property,” said Curran. “But on the other hand, we have to offer people an option. When they can’t even charge their cell phones so they can go to the services that we think we are offering them, then that’s not a solution.”

Arevalos responded to Curran’s statement, calling it incorrect and citing that people are simply choosing not to go to areas where power outlets are available to charge their phones until the task force can find a solution to the issue. An unidentified homeless man addressed the group, taking aim at the overall situation. He vented frustration that the ACHTF has been meeting for a long time, but no action had actually been taken to mitigate or even address homelessness in the county. The man’s statements garnered a positive reaction from several in the crowd.

Despite a bit of heated back and forth, everyone who spoke agreed that everyone needed to work together to find a solution or, at least find a starting place, to begin addressing the problem. The next ACHTF meeting is scheduled for 3 p.m. on Thursday, October 24 at 10877 Conductor Boulevard in Sutter Creek.