It was a jubilant crowd that left Tuesday’s Placerville City Council meeting as a last-minute alternative rescued Hangtown Haven, the city’s only legal encampment, from imminent closure to a year-long stay.
Hangtown Haven at 1688 Broadway in Placerville is a temporary solution to the nationwide problem of homelessness. In July Hangtown Haven Inc. was granted a 90-day temporary use permit for a trial-run legal encampment for the homeless to determine if such a facility could succeed. The permit expires Oct. 26, and Hangtown Haven Inc. applied for an extension of the temporary permit until Dec.1 in order to have time to negotiate a long-term special use permit and a lease agreement with the owner of the property, Barry Wilkinson, where the camp is located.
A Neighborhood Chat on Oct. 15 between city staff and the public evidenced community interest in the success of a shelter for the city’s homeless population and elicited concerns about the current location, lack of pedestrian access to and from the site, sanitation, potable water and drainage as well as oversight for a long-term facility.
City staff concluded at the end of the chat that the current temporary shelter has been a tremendous success, but recommended to the City Council that the encampment close for the winter on Nov. 5 when the homeless population will have the option of using the rotating winter shelter system offered by local faith-based organizations.
“Closing the camp resolves some issues, but it presents some challenges as well,” said Mike Webb, Placerville community development director. Illegal camps might spring up again; rotating shelters have limited capacity and cannot store personal belongings; there is no location for day use and closing the camp could be seen as a step backwards. “This encampment has demonstrated that a facility like this can work and can provide a safe environment,” said Webb.
City Manager Cleve Morris asked the council to consider an alternative to closing the camp for the winter.”Hangtown Haven has been a success, but the location is not right. We could leave Hangtown Haven open this winter and allow them to apply for a three-month special use permit after winterizing the camp. We could allow them to continue with 90-day special use permits until November 2013 s0 they could have a year to come up with an alternative location.”
Councilwoman Patty Borelli asked about the amount of staff time that had been used dealing with the homeless and whether additional staff time would be used to monitor the progress of the camp over a year. Morris said a considerable amount of his and Mike Webb’s time had been involved in the past two weeks, but he did not have exact figures.
Vice Mayor Wendy Mattson said, “Private citizens and not the city will be driving this forward and diligently pursuing a new and better location.”
Involvement of the county in finding an alternative to Hangtown Haven is key to a solution said Morris. Councilman Carl Hagen suggested a report on the progress of the camp each 90 days could be included and that a substantially developed plan for an alternative location needed to be in place by November 2013.
Police Chief George Nielsen said,”The camp has had quite a bit of success, but we have seen an increase in traffic/pedestrian issues on Broadway since the camp opened. With no sidewalks or shoulders and no lighting on the road, I believe the camp has served its dry season purpose. These are some of the right ideas, but in the wrong location. We support the Nov. 5 closure.”
He requested that if the council approved the alternative to allow the camp to stay open until Nov. 15, 2013, sex offenders not be allowed to be on the camp site. “Lumsden Park and the El Dorado Adventist School are too close.”
Members of the public spoke, including Art Edwards, co-founder of Hangtown Haven Inc. and the city’s homeless advisor. “We no longer allow sex offenders in camp. We accept the conditions of the alternative and pledge to keep the camp clean, safe and organized for the next 12 months. I ask the homeless in the audience and those who support them to stand and wave their thanks to the council.”
After the entire audience regained their seats, Marie Cook, operations manager of the Community Resource Center, said, ” We no longer accept referrals from sex offenders to the camp and the homeless will be using the back way to the CRC instead of Broadway. We have sleeping bags that keep you warm even in the snow and the tents are up on pallets, the drainage has been done.”
Hangtown Haven resident Larry Alum said the recent rainstorms had left the residents of the camp “warm, safe and dry.” He cited winter weather statistics for Placerville, contrasting them with the extreme conditions endured by the homeless in Chicago. “Placerville was founded in tents. They did it and we can do it too.”
“These are people, not parking spaces. We can’t just move them all around,” said Placerville resident Jackie Neau. ” I don’t believe this is the right location, but I do believe we need to give this a chance.”
Supporters representing Marshall Hospital staff and the Mercy Way Rescue Mission also spoke in support of keeping the encampment open, citing the residents’ way of taking care of each other, medically, emotionally and physically as a positive effect.
Mayor Mark Acuna spoke to the Hangtown Haven residents in the audience: “The success of the camp has allowed a shift in the thinking of the council and the community. You are community members and we have a responsibility to our community members.”
City Council voted 4-0 to allow the camp to continue to operate until Jan. 25 after meeting the city’s conditions for winterizing the encampment and removing all sex offenders from the camp and to allow them to apply for 90-day special use permits, exempt from environmental quality review, until Nov. 15, 2013, when the encampment will be permanently closed. A second motion that the mayor or an appointee work with the county and contributing organizations toward a long-term solution as a focus for 2013 also passed with a 4-0 vote.
“We’re not going to cure homelessness, but to get a city to stand up for those who have the least is amazing,” said Ron Sachs, co-founder of Hangtown Haven Inc. “These are people and they need help.”
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.