HANGTOWN HAVEN RESIDENT and member of the Community Council, Rebecca Nylander, 40, sits in the office at the homeless camp on Oct. 23. Democrat photos by Shelly Thorene


Rebecca Nylander — from law school to homeless

By From page A1 | November 04, 2013

Hangtown Haven, the city’s legal encampment for the homeless, will end its one-year experiment in communal living on Nov. 15 when its Temporary Use Permit expires. The camp has more than 30 residents, a Community Council of four residents who run the camp and enforce its regulations for the safety of all, and a host of volunteers. This is part II of a four-part series on different residents from the camp. Part I ran Friday. In their stories, you may see glimpses of your own.

Rebecca Nylander, 40, is a member of the Community Council at Hangtown Haven. She’s a smart, detail-oriented person who volunteers two days a week at Green Valley Community Church as a receptionist, works at their Saturday Cafe and does a children’s ministry on Sunday afternoons. When the Haven closes in November, she’ll be homeless — again.

“I’m frightened for the 32 people who live here at the Haven,” said Nylander. “I don’t know what will happen to them. We’ve set a standard here for how to live, stay sober, meet goals to transition out and so we’re not favorites of the traditional homeless population. The shelters won’t be able to accommodate all of us and the traditional homeless population too — we don’t mix anymore. My biggest fear is that it will put people who are being successful and put them with people who are still in the cesspool and it won’t be a step up, it will be stepping down.”

Nylander, mother of two grown daughters, knows what it’s like to step down. On Dec. 4, 2011, she was caring for her mother who had COPD. That was the day her world began to unravel.

She’d left law school, which she loved, to care for her mother. “It was natural for me to do this,” said Nylander. “We were best friends and very close. My brother had cared for her before she got so sick, but there were things that only another woman could do for her.”

On Dec. 4, Nylander’s mother began having a breathing episode. “We had to get her to the hospital and I sent my boyfriend outside to get the car ready,” said Nylander. Her mother had some problems which Nylander had to take care of and when she finished, she noticed her boyfriend had not returned. Going outside, she found a SWAT team on the property and her boyfriend in handcuffs. Police also detained Nylander. Richard Petroski had murdered his stepfather, John Malia, on the property where Nylander’s mother was renting their house.

Nylander’s plea to take her mother to the hospital was denied while the search for Petroski and the crime investigation were underway. When Nylander’s mother was able to be transported to the hospital, she was in respiratory distress.

“She never really recovered,” said Nylander, “and she died on Christmas Eve, 2011.”

Nylander fell into a severe depression. “I was so lost and ill; my relationship with my boyfriend crumbled. I couldn’t even get out of bed. Everything just fell apart for me.”

Her family fell apart as well and they were told to leave the house they rented on the property in March.

“I tried to pull it together. I did volunteer work at the Community Resource Center, but I couldn’t deal with everything,” she said.

In June, 2012, Nylander ended up in the El Dorado County’s Crisis Residential Treatment facility where she lived until October. “Then for three months I rented a room that Mental Health paid for,” said Nylander. “When that stopped, in February, I came here.”

She’s become a mental health advocate for residents at the camp, helping to identify people who might need help, helping them navigate the mental health system, watching out for the more fragile members of the Hangtown Haven community. Nylander keeps the stats for the camp — how many camp members transition out of the camp, how many are working, who is doing well, who needs help. She is the heart of the camp.

“We’ve gone from being a homeless camp to developing a program for transitional living,” said Nylander. “Three out of five residents transition out — to jobs, to school, living on their own  or in a residential facility. We have a case management system with goals along the way.”

One of the goals, Nylander said, might be something as simple as getting up in the morning and washing their hair — her own first goal in the camp.

Nylander wrote a series of short profiles on members of the camp and profiles of those who have successfully transitioned out of it. In her own profile she wrote, “I was a lost soul deep in grief with nowhere to turn. What I found was a family, a faith and a home. I found that by being with people who cared and being safe, I could start to get my feet under me. I found that by caring for others, I could help heal myself. I have found a purpose and a reward greater than I could imagine.”

She has hope that something will happen to enable Hangtown Haven to reopen. “Our Community Council is dedicated to hanging together and finding a way to reopen and we’re dedicated to seeing this camp succeed,” she said.

What Nylander wishes for herself is to have a place to live and to continue working with the homeless population as a career. “My dream would be to turn being a mental health advocate into a paying job,” she said. “I want to help people who don’t want to be homeless.”

Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.

Wendy Schultz

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