On Wednesday morning, a few residents of Hangtown Haven, the city’s first legal homeless encampment, gathered in the common area as resident Sam Carter, 32, cooked the fixings for breakfast burritos for all.
In August, Hangtown Haven Inc. was granted a 90-day special use permit to allow the camp on the Broadway property owned by Barry Wilkinson. The Mountain Democrat talked to residents of Hangtown Haven, neighbors, Placerville city staff and the organizers of the encampment to find out how things have been going.
The camp’s common area is now covered in pea gravel instead of brush and blackberry bushes. A picnic table and seating areas are grouped around a fire pit. There are three portable toilets for the camp, one of them ADA accessible, and a wash station. Water comes from a well which the property owner allows the camp to tap into and they will be installing a water purification system. Twice a week the toilets and a garbage dumpster are emptied.
Mounted along one section of fence is a board with electrical outlets.
“This is our electrical system,” said Art Edwards, 80,one of the founders of Hangtown Haven Inc., the organization responsible for the facility. “A licensed electrician donated his time to install it, so we have lights in the common area and a place to charge phones or computers.”
The camp is governed by a Community Council — five residents of the camp. The council hears complaints, ideas and enforces the rules of the camp. No children, pets, fighting or theft are allowed. No cooking fires or smoking except in designated areas. No public intoxication, drugs or open containers of alcohol.
“We’ve had visitors from San Antonio, Redding, Nevada, Nevada City and Los Angeles, wanting to see how the camp works and why it’s working,” said Ron Sachs, 76, another founding member of Hangtown Haven Inc. and president of Job’s Shelters of the Sierra. “Having the residents who live here govern themselves is the biggest key.”
Ken Green, 47, and Todd Parker, 40, two members of the Community Council agreed.
“We’ve lived with most of these people in shelters, ” said Green, who is also the site coordinator. “We know how to approach them and how to talk with them.”
Parker added, “We’ve learned the different personalities and so we can talk to people in their own way. A lot of people get defensive when approached, especially if someone is trying to get them to abide by the rules.”
Edwards and Sachs, each with more than 25 years experience in working with the homeless, function as advisors to the Community Council and interface with city officials and organizations on behalf of the homeless population.
“We help provide the facilities, but we don’t run the camp. They do, ” said Edwards. “One thing we’ve learned in this trial period is that this camp can work.”
Stephanie Allen, 46, was one of the first residents of the camp, helping to clear brush and build it. “Being homeless is a lot of work. This is better than living in my car, being messed with by the cops. It’s more like a family unit. ”
Chores, like raking the gravel common area, starting the fire and keeping trash picked up are done by example, said Parker. “Someone gets up and starts doing something and other people join in.”
The disparate groups of homeless in the camp are like a blend of many different cultures. Living together in one place was potentially like putting sticks of dynamite into a volcano, but Sachs said that has been the biggest success of all.
“We run the gamut of society here,” Sachs said. “We have a larger percentage of people with alcohol, mental and other issues, but that’s what makes me so proud is seeing this community of people living together and getting along together.”
For Jannette Taylor, 37, homeless since January, living without a home is frightening. “But there are a lot of people looking out for me, here.”
Kim Lee has lived in the camp since the first days.
“It’s a different crowd around here about 8:30 at night when people get back from their jobs. The community people have been helpful and the Wilkinsons are the best example of what people in this community are willing to do,” Lee said.
“Overall, things have gone well,” said Cleve Morris, Placerville city manager. “There were some operational issues at first, but that’s common with new ideas and new organizations. We’ve had good discussions and they’ve been able to work through the issues.”
Hangtown Haven Inc. has applied for a 30-day extension to its 90-day special use permit. “We need the time to work out the details of a permanent encampment,” said Edwards. He and Sachs want to keep the camp open during the winter despite the system of nomadic shelters provided by faith-based organizations.
“All they have in the world is in these tents,” said Sachs. “Some people don’t want to leave their tents unattended all night while they are at a shelter. The shelters can be crowded and loud. Shelters are also open from 6:30 at night until 9 in the morning—then where do people go? This is their home and some people don’t want to leave their home.”
Edwards said they have three carports coming to the camp that would be set up in the common area to provide shelter from rain or snow in poor weather and plans for a concrete pad in the common area to replace the gravel if they are approved for a permanent encampment.
Placerville resident Chuck Holland who owns property on nearby Point View Drive said he’s opposed to having a legal homeless encampment anywhere in Placerville.
“Having a homeless camp will drop property values, Holland said. “I have no issue with helping homeless people — people who have lost jobs and their homes and have legitimate needs. But some of the people at the camp say they’ve been homeless for 25 years. We don’t need to build a camp for them.” Holland said, if the group is granted an extension of their special use permit, he plans to contact surrounding home owners and file a lawsuit against the city.
On Oct. 15, Hangtown Haven will be the topic of discussion for the city’s Neighborhood Chat. “We’ll use this discussion as a gauge of public opinion about the continuation of the project, “said Morris. The chat will be held 6 p.m. at Town Hall, 549 Main St. in Placerville.