They lined both sides of Main Street near Town Hall. Some held signs with “Jesus was homeless” on them; others flourished photographs of trash-filled campsites near Smith Flat and Broadway. For two hours before the April 8 Placerville City Council meeting, Mercy Way Rescue Church organized a peaceful demonstration to ask for a 90-day moratorium against one of two new city ordinances that affect the homeless.
Also demonstrating were neighbors who support the ordinance and applaud city police for enforcing it.
The ordinance in question went into effect on Feb. 13 and authorizes police and the city to enforce regulations against illegal camping in the city.
“With Hangtown Haven closed, the nomadic shelters closed on April 1 and now the CRC (Community Resource Center) closing, where are the homeless to go?” said Pastor Frank Gates of Mercy Way. “Most of them aren’t strangers to Placerville; they’ve lived here most of their lives, like Annie who’s been here since 1979. Protesting is not my thing, but there is nothing else we can do.”
“We’re asking for a 90-day moratorium on the ordinance against illegal camping to give the faith-based organizations and community time to figure out a place for the homeless to go,” said Dr. Mary Maaga, pastor for Mercy Way. “We want to create a safe environment for the homeless who are preyed on by the criminal element who victimize the youth just out of foster care and women. We aren’t asking for another legal encampment like Hangtown Haven. We want to cooperate with the police and help clean up our town, but we need a place where the homeless can go to heal their lives. There is literally no place for them to be.”
Members of the Smith Flat Homeowners Association showed photographs taken of the illegal campsites cleaned out by volunteers this past weekend. “The homeless who want help should get it, but the chronic homeless who reject help and just want a handout to live by their own rules should go,” said Bob Caruso, resident of Smith Flat.
“Why should we support them and clean up their mess?” asked Janine Caruso. “We found needles and syringes and human waste in campsites where children were living. It breaks my heart to think of children living in that.”
Television crews filmed the protest and followed about 60 protesters and proponents into the City Council meeting. During a one-hour public comment period, both protesters and proponents spoke about their concerns.
“I appreciate the difficulties the City Council faces,” said Don Vanderkar, Placerville resident and volunteer with now-closed Hangtown Haven, “and I have come to love and respect the homeless in our community.” Vanderkar said Hangtown Haven was not the answer, but he requested the city issue a special use permit for homeless to camp while city, county and community work together to build a homeless shelter. “If the city and county really want to solve this problem, they have the ability to do so with a positive approach.”
Dr. Maaga said, “All the homeless people behind me in the audience are citizens — citizens who have fallen to the bottom. Even if all the homeless who do drugs, are alcoholics, are foster care youth, are mentally and physically ill or victims of domestic violence are cured or find homes, there will still be homeless. We introduce homeless people to God who loves them and gives them the tools to transform their lives. We aren’t here asking for government programs or money or for Hangtown Haven 2. We’re asking for mercy and a 90-day moratorium. It is neither fair nor just to turn the city’s recent hospitality to hostility.”
Shannon Adams, who said she was homeless, said she was against the trash and filth of the illegal camps. “But there is nothing else. There is a six-year waiting list for housing and nothing is available. I raised my kids here and I’m educated, but now I have nowhere to be.”
Chuck Wolf, Placerville business owner, cited statistics that one in five homeless males is a veteran. “If we don’t reach out to those in need, we don’t deserve to reap the benefits that society provides us,” he said.
Wiltze Road resident Joe Nichols said the crime rate and homeless population quadrupled when Hangtown Haven was open. “There is a dealer on Wiltze who supplies the homeless with drugs and I know he will be stopped because you (police) have been given the authority to do so. It hasn’t been this good in a long time and I thank you.”
“No homeless people showed up this weekend to help clean up the trash from old camps and if they want to contribute there are plenty of able-bodied homeless who could have,” said Kathy Jurgens. She spoke in support of both ordinances.
“Squatters and claim jumpers came here 150 years ago. Wagon trains brought thousands of homeless, but they worked their butts off to make homes and lives,” said a man from Camino.
Police are enforcing the ordinance against illegal camping with citations, but do provide the homeless with a list of phone numbers of resources that provide services.
The public comment portion of the City Council meeting is for people to address items not on the meeting agenda. State law prohibits City Council from taking action on items not on the agenda. City Council members can request items to be put on a future agenda if the majority of the council supports it and council does have the ability to declare a moratorium, according to City Attorney John Driscoll.
“Any item like that would go through the regular process of being added to an agenda, discussion, public input and public hearing before we could take action, ” said Mayor Carl Hagen.
No council action was taken with regard to a 90-day ordinance moratorium and no council member requested the addition of a possible moratorium to a future agenda. The illegal camping ordinance remains in effect.
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.