Homelessness is something almost every community must deal with in the best way it can. On Tuesday, Nov. 12, the Placerville City Council sealed the fate of Hangtown Haven, Placerville’s only legal encampment for the homeless, with a unanimous vote to deny its request for an extension to the camp’s Temporary Use Permit.
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The camp will close Friday, Nov. 15, the expiration date of the TUP, and its residents will join the rest of the homeless population in El Dorado County.
Town Hall was standing room only when city council members seated themselves on the dais. The crowd, split into two opposing groups, had been quietly building since 5 p.m. After a staff report by Community Development Director Pierre Rivas that recommended the denial of the TUP based on lack of safe pedestrian access to and from the site, concerns the site is not all-weather capable, that the encampment might be subject to an environmental review and the City Zoning Ordinance that limits the duration of a TUP to one year, another report by Placerville Police Chief Scott Heller was read into the record.
The report demonstrated a rise in Habitual Transient Offender contacts since July 2012, particularly from July to October 2013, most of which occurred along Broadway. Heller stated an increase in Habitual Transient Offenders from outside Placerville had been noted and that very few police contacts had been with the local Placerville homeless.
Then the audience took the stage. With a few minor exceptions, speakers refrained from adversarial remarks, but it was apparent that feelings ran strong. One by one, members of the Hangtown Haven Board of Directors, the Community Council of Residents, volunteers, legal representatives and supporters spoke of the value and success of Hangtown Haven and dismantled the city’s arguments against its continuance.
Wade Askew, legal graduate and Herb Whittaker, managing director of Legal Services of Northern California, brought up the issue that the law is unclear about being unable to extend a TUP for more than a year. “There is nothing to mandate that the city council can’t extend or grant a new one for longer than one year,” said Whittaker.
About the crime statistics in Heller’s report, Whittaker said if the city denied the extension of the TUP, their denial must be based on sound findings based in law. “There is no evidence that the increase in crime is caused by Hangtown Haven,” said Whittaker.
“Do not unfairly connect an increase in crimes with the success of Hangtown Haven,” said Art Edwards, founder of Hangtown Haven. In a lengthy presentation, Edwards thanked the city for its support; pointed out that a shelter is not the place where people can find the support and learn the skills they have been able to learn at Hangtown Haven; referenced the 125 people who have gone through the Haven in the past 16 months, the 37 who have graduated into jobs and homes of their own and the 20 expelled because they could not follow the camp rules; and focused attention on the medical and mental health challenges of some of the residents, which have been addressed in the stability of the camp.
His report was interrupted by Mayor Wendy Thomas who referenced time constraints due to the number of people waiting to speak, but his written presentation included a graph showing the number of felons released to Placerville as the result of Public Safety Realignment, AB 109, from July 2012 to September 2013 as compared with the number of Habitual Transient Offender contacts during the same period. Both show a sharp increase except for June 2013 in which HTO contacts decreased.
Caruso reported an increase in home burglaries, the potential wildfire hazard of illegal campfires and 3 a.m. assaults on recycle bins from the homeless population. Other Smith Flat residents reported having to remove drunk and passed out homeless off their lawns multiple times and one woman reported two break-ins, while she was in her house recuperating from a stroke, that necessitated her moving away from Smith Flat.
The owner of the Stadium Club on Broadway reported cars being broken into in his parking lot, feces in the lot, cut gas lines and pipes under the bar being removed for the copper by transients.
“This is not a vote against people; it’s a vote for people,” said a Smith Flat resident. “Focus on the citizens who maintain and support the community.”
Wiltse Road resident, Richard Zito, said, “This is tough. I understand that the Haven has been a success, but when your arms are wide open, the bad comes in with the good …We accepted the Haven’s goals and dreams and the extensions, but now this is enough.”
James Atkins, a member of Hangtown Haven’s Resident Council apologized for the problems Smith Flat and Wiltse residents are dealing with and for Haven only being able to help 30-40 people, but said, “Why are we being punished for the actions of others? They will be there whether Hangtown Haven is here or not. They were there before there was a Hangtown Haven.”
City Manager Cleve Morris reviewed the city’s collaboration with the county to transition Haven residents when the camp closes — looking for locations for a shelter, identifying sites for possible day shelters and working with the Haven residents to provide needed services. While El Dorado County has directed staff to find a location for the camp to be relocated, the work has not yet been completed. A report on their findings is due in January.
Finally, the city council weighed in.
“There is never going to be a good time to close it,” said Councilwoman Trisha Wilkins. “I think we need to be concerned with the public safety and the business rights of all the residents of Placerville.”
Vice Mayor Carl Hagen explained the tardiness of the county’s help by explaining the county’s concern was the use of tents for a temporary shelter. “They’ve been willing to work with us on transitional housing, but for safety and health issues they don’t feel a tent meets that,” he said.
Councilwoman Patty Borelli said she voted for the one-year extension a year ago, but only for a year. “Maybe the camp became too complacent and didn’t get into looking for a new location soon enough. It’s unfair to the property and business owners near that area. Hangtown Haven isn’t inviting the problems we have, but they are surrounded by it,” she said.
Councilwoman Carol Patton said being on the Planning Commission had made her familiar with Temporary Use Permits. “This has always been a Temporary Use Permit and it’s unfortunate that it expires in November … Hangtown Haven and Art Edwards should be commended for their work, but it is detrimental to the neighboring areas. The CRC, the Upper Room, Tree House Ministries and the Rescue Mission all attract the homeless and Broadway is a dangerous place to walk.”
“Two and a half years ago I worked with local volunteers and the homeless to brainstorm creative solutions,” said Mayor Wendy Thomas. “The idea of a legal encampment came up and we wanted to test it out to see if it could work. I’d like to thank Barry Wilkinson because everyone else said, ‘Not in my backyard,’ but he said, ‘Try it in my front yard.’ It’s easy to lead with my heart on this issue but we can’t do this as a council. We are charged with protecting the welfare of all citizens.”
Councilwoman Patton motioned to deny the extension and accept the findings of the staff report and add the findings of Chief Heller’s reports as Hangtown Haven being detrimental to neighboring property and the community. Councilwoman Wilkins seconded the motion and it passed 5-0.
“This is a great disappointment,” said Art Edwards. “We have 60 days to move the structures, but the people have to be out by Friday, Nov. 15. That’s what we will concentrate on now.”
As of Nov. 13, Hangtown Haven Inc. had decided not to seek legal action, but to concentrate on finding places for its residents to live.
“I think at least one good thing came out of this experiment,” said Councilwoman Borelli. “The folks at Hangtown Haven showed the community, and themselves, what they can do. And that’s huge.”
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.