It was an experiment that worked, depending on your point of view. And it is gone.
Hangtown Haven, the only legal encampment for the homeless in El Dorado County, received national recognition for its approach in building a self-governing homeless community that supported its residents in their personal goals, provided a safe, clean environment for residents to get back on their feet and demonstrated what could be done to help the homeless with the support of the community.
The camp came into being in July of 2012, on a parcel of land on Broadway in Placerville, leased to Hangtown Haven Inc. by owner Barry Wilkinson. Community members and the homeless worked together to clear the campsite, put up fencing, bring in portable toilets and a wash station and build a communal fire pit area.
Placerville City Council Mayor Wendy Thomas and City Manager Cleve Morris worked with Hangtown Haven’s founders, Art Edwards and Ron Sachs, to help the camp meet the conditions for a Temporary Use Permit for 90 days. The camp, with its community volunteers and a self-governing body, the Community Council, proved itself and was issued another TUP for one year — giving time to find a permanent location for the camp.
During the year-long search for another location, more than 125 people moved through the camp, with about 37 moving into jobs and their own apartments after using the camp’s stability, the support of the other residents and the resources community volunteers helped them find to build new lives.
Representatives from other cities in California and states across the nation came to observe the camp and talk to the residents, founders, volunteers and City Council members about what was working and how they might be able to incorporate a similar idea into their community. Hangtown Haven was the recipient of grants and community donations which enabled them to operate without cost to the city of Placerville.
By April of 2013, many locations for a new camp had been explored and one, on Perk’s Court off Missouri Flat Road, seemed to be a viable choice. Requests of the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors for the use of the county property were postponed and rescheduled as time ran out, and in August, after the request was heard, the BOS decided more study was needed and a committee was developed to evaluate possible sites.
In November, the Placerville City Council heard a request from Hangtown Haven for an extension of its TUP for its original location. Community members attended in force, both in support of the extension and in support of the denial of the extension.
Many neighboring residents of Hangtown Haven and the Broadway area prefaced their remarks by complimenting the operation of the camp and absolving its residents of wrong-doing before citing complaints that the increase in illegally camped homeless was bringing an increase in home burglaries and unpleasant encounters with the homeless defecating and urinating in their yards. The presence of the Upper Room Dining Hall, the Community Resource Center and the Mercy Way Rescue Mission on Broadway, serving the needy and homeless of the community, was thought by some to have created a hub for the homeless.
A report compiled by Chief Scott Heller of the Placerville Police Department seemed to back the neighboring residents’ complaints as it cited a year-long increase in police contact with Habitual Transient Offenders and in burglaries and thefts in the Smith Flat/Broadway area. Others attributed the rise in crime to the recent increase in the early release of inmates due to AB109 and 117.
The City Council voted 5-0 to deny the extension of the TUP, finding the camp’s location to be a detriment to the neighboring community and directed it to close on Nov. 15. Without a new location to relocate, the residents scattered. About two-thirds of the camp’s residents currently stay overnight in nomadic shelters provided by 10 faith-based organizations and at a day shelter established at Christ-Like Services off Green Valley Road. Others simply vanished into the woods.
“The shelters keep people from freezing,” said Edwards, “but the people move to a different one every day and can’t keep their stuff with them, so it’s been difficult. Some of the camp residents who were making gains with the support structure of the camp are now falling back into old patterns without it.”
The BOS-commissioned committee continues to evaluate proposed sites for a new location for a homeless shelter or camp. A presentation before the BOS on their results is planned for January.
“We are still hoping the county will help with locating a good property,” said Edwards. “Our fingers are crossed.”
Two of the members of Hangtown Haven’s Community Council now drive the seven-passenger van donated by Wells Auto Sales to transport the homeless from nomadic shelters to day shelters, the Upper Room and to medical appointments. Edwards said that Hangtown Haven, Inc. is partnering with Partners in Care to provide a transition house for people who have been released from Marshall Hospital to recuperate from illness or surgery until they can live on their own.
Placerville Mayor Wendy Thomas said the county has been working internally with Health and Human Services, the BOS and the Chief Administrative Officer’s staff to evaluate possible sites and also talking with local non-profits organizations to inventory the services available for the homeless in the community.
“The blessing of Hangtown Haven has been that it really brought the homeless issue to the surface and allowed this increase in cooperation between the county and the non-profits to take place. There has been a lot of good accomplished by Hangtown Haven,” she said.
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.