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May 28, 2019 – Homelessness is a significant national, state and local issue. The 2018-2019 Nevada County Grand Jury (Jury) responded to a complaint relating to homelessness, prompting the Jury to investigate the subject and report its findings.

The number of people experiencing homelessness in Nevada County (County) is much higher than any count would suggest. The preliminary 2019 Point-In-Time (PIT) count is 404 but stakeholders agree this number should be at least doubled to represent the true number of individuals who are currently considered homeless. The majority of the people counted are long-term residents of the County and are not a transient population from out of the area.

The Housing First model of providing people experiencing homelessness with permanent housing has been endorsed by both the Federal Government and the State of California. Housing First is an evidence-based approach with proven outcomes that has become the best practice. Counties, municipalities, and community groups must endorse the Housing First model to be eligible for significant new federal and state funding that is being allocated to address homelessness.

In December 2018 the Nevada County Board of Supervisors (BoS) approved and adopted the Ten Year Strategic Plan to Address Homelessness – 2018 (2018 Ten Year Plan). There was broad agreement by the participants in the development of the plan that the primary cause of homelessness in the County is the lack of affordable housing and the solution to ending homelessness is to have more affordable housing units.

The Housing First approach will present challenges to the County since the current availability of low-income housing is virtually non-existent. The strategies offered in the 2018 Ten Year Plan must be developed into a specific implementation plan with goals, priorities, planned outcomes, timelines, responsibilities, accountabilities, and key measurements to meet the very real challenge of insufficient low-income housing units.

The BoS and elected officials from throughout the County should form a collaborative entity, perhaps a Joint Powers Authority, with the mandate to establish county-wide rules and programs to facilitate the development of low-income housing. In the absence of a collaborative entity, the County should take the lead to determine how to provide low-income housing and invite developers and builders to participate. The County should coordinate with Grass Valley, Nevada City, and Truckee (the Municipalities) to develop a list of incentives for developers to construct low-income housing.

Homelessness is a community issue that financially impacts every resident of the County. For example, there are real costs associated with law enforcement act medical/emergency room visits, clean-up of trash and human waste, damage to the environment, as well as increased risk of fires. Numerous studies across the country have shown that the public cost per person is cut in half when housing is provided. Every citizen in the County should be motivated to contact their elected officials and encourage them to fund low-income housing for those experiencing homelessness as a method to reduce overall County costs.

Federal, state, and local funds for social services primarily flow into the County as opposed to the Municipalities. The County is the only entity that can take the primary leadership position in addressing the homelessness issue. The BoS and Nevada County Chief Executive Officer (CEO) should embrace this role. Homelessness should be a regular agenda item for BoS meetings.

Frequent updates on strategies and projects in a public forum will raise awareness and possibly garner support from a portion of the population that is not informed about the issue. Continued partnership with community service providers for outreach and education to the general public is vital.

The housing crisis, both nationally and state-wide, has resulted in substantial funding being allocated to address homelessness and more is on the horizon. Monitoring existing and new sources of funding and preparing the required applications are time-consuming activities, as is the management and oversight of existing and new programs. All require a high level of expertise and close collaboration with multiple parties to be successful. The CEO should conduct an assessment of the personnel required to capitalize on the opportunities being presented and submit an incremental staffing plan to the BoS. The bolstering of resources and the outsourcing of specific functions should be evaluated to place the County in the best position to be competitive and successful in securing additional federal and state funding.

Providing citizens experiencing homelessness with permanent housing is a best practice that has been proven to reduce the overall cost of caring for these vulnerable citizens. Development of adequate numbers of such housing units in the County will be a long-term project and there will be a continuing need for traditional emergency shelters, winter warming shelters, and other overnight options.

The Jury acknowledges that significant progress has been made in addressing homelessness in the County and specific highlights are provided in this report. The Jury was encouraged to see action taken by the BoS in January 2019 to purchase a five-acre parcel on Old Tunnel Road in Grass Valley for $233,900. This parcel is slated for an estimated 10,000+ square-foot Day/Navigation Center and 40 housing units. Two significant state funding applications for this project have been submitted and results are pending.

Emergency shelters (Hospitality House is the largest in the County) offer a place for people to sleep but they must vacate the facility during the day. This creates the lack of a daytime destination for people experiencing homelessness which often leaves them back on the streets. The Jury fully endorses aggressive movement on development of the Day/Navigation Center on Old Tunnel Road as a first step toward giving citizens experiencing homelessness a destination during the day and access to critical services. The County should continue to partner with relevant stakeholders to secure funding for and commence construction of the Day/Navigation Center as a top priority. The Nevada County Building Department should streamline construction requirements to open the Day/Navigation Center in the shortest time possible.

A warming shelter is a short-term emergency shelter that operates when weather conditions become dangerously inclement. Their primary purpose is the prevention of death and injury from exposure to the elements. The Jury was gratified to see the County, Nevada City, the Nevada City Police Department, Sierra Roots, the Salvation Army, the Veteran’s Hall, and neighborhood constituents come together, pool their expertise and resources, and finalize a plan to open shelter options for the winter of 2018-19.

Current agreements were only in place for the 2018-2019 winter with no long-term plan. The BoS should allocate ongoing funding in its annual budget to support the operation of winter warming shelters. Existing agreements should be renewed by October 1, 2019 and should include more flexibility on the part of operators as to when weather conditions, both forecasted and actual, warrant opening.

Arresting people for sleeping outdoors was deemed illegal in 2018 by the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In Martin vs. City of Boise, the court found “the Cruel and Unusual Punishments clause of the Eighth Amendment precludes the enforcement of a statute prohibiting sleeping outside against homeless individuals with no access to alternative shelter.” Law enforcement is required to adhere to this decision. The County should explore the risks and benefits of designating and maintaining an approved camping location for overnight options. The analysis, findings, and conclusions should be shared with the public.

There are citizens in the County who are actively working to facilitate and expand programs and services for citizens experiencing homelessness. Their dedication and commitment are commendable. There are vocal citizens on the other end of the spectrum who are opposed to any projects or programs related to the homeless occurring near their residences or businesses. There are many citizens in the middle who lack awareness of the magnitude of the issue, have never been personally affected by homelessness, and do not recognize the cost and risk to the County of failing to house people. Regardless of where an individual citizen lands on the spectrum, investment now in permanent housing solutions will not only alleviate human suffering but will save the County money. Every citizen should support these objectives.

Download the full report here.