During the cold, wet months of winter, a large number of faith-based organizations unite to provide a rotating nomadic shelter for the homeless in El Dorado County. On March 31, the shelters closed for the year, so where do the homeless go now?
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“Some will go back and live in the legal camp at Hangtown Haven,” said Art Edwards, co-founder of Hangtown Haven Inc. “Others will go off to live by themselves in the woods. They try to get up into the mountain areas so they aren’t seen.”
Edwards said there is already a group of six to eight individuals camping together across the street from Hangtown Haven. “It’s an area that the police have already cleared out, twice,” said Edwards, “but they aren’t qualified to live at Hangtown Haven because they have problems with drinking and with following the camp rules.”
Placerville Police Chief George Nielsen summed up his department’s policy: “We’re encouraging everyone to go to Hangtown Haven. Illegal camping in the city is not acceptable. There are county and city services available and we encourage people to use them.” Nielsen said the Police Department will be diligent about not allowing illegal camping. “Eventually they will get the message and move on.”
Janis Carney and her husband Tom volunteer at Hangtown Haven twice a week. Janis Carney said that it’s not just about the weather when the shelters close in March. For most shelter guests, the shelter represents safety, particularly for women.
“It also gives a sense of community and emotional support,” said Carney. “They look out for each other and guests and shelter volunteers develop relationships which disappear when the shelter closes. For people already feeling marginalized, this is not good.”
“For about 15-20 of the 30 people who used the shelters this winter, there is no other option,” said Carney. “If they are not from Placerville, they aren’t eligble for Hangtown Haven. Physically disabled people, elderly people and those with major physical and mental health issues also don’t do well with camping in a tent. Hangtown Haven is doing a great job of keeping the camp free of people with alcohol problems, but there is no place for those people.
“Some people became homeless for the first time this winter and when the shelters closed, we gave them a tent, sleeping bag and tarp,” Carney said.
“But they asked, ‘Where do we go now?’ We have no answers. It’s frustrating for them and frustrating for us,” said Carney.
Some contact family members when the shelter closes and may have a place to stay, but the majority have nowhere to go and end up setting up illegal camps in the woods. “If they are illegally camping, they are at risk of being tossed into jail if they are on probation or parole,” said Carney.
The Residents Council at Hangtown Haven says there are still openings in the camp for more guests. “But some people prefer to live in the illegal camps across the street because they don’t want to deal with following any rules,” said Ken Green, a member of the council. “That kind of thinking is what keeps you homeless.”
Despite police diligence, illegal camps already dot the hillside behind the Dollar Store and a number of them have filled in the wooded area on Broadway across from Hangtown Haven. Green said the camp guests can hear the illegal campers “whooping and hollering all night long.”
Another member of the council, James Adkins, said only rarely did he have to live in the woods as a homeless person. “Only when people would invite me to stay and didn’t have room for my dog,” said Adkins. “I feel lucky to be here, but it’s a choice. I like having a safe place to live.”
The Residents Council runs the camp, making all decisions as a team. Recently they added an internship to train non-council guests of the camp in the process in the event that one of the council members moves out. Becky Nylander is the current intern and she remembers what happened the first time she became homeless: “This camp was still just an idea so I lived in the woods. In the woods women are prey.”
The churches that support the nomadic winter shelter bear the full financial burden for five months, said Carney. “I wish other churches would step up for the next five months. Even when the weather is good, elderly people and women with children would use the shelter every night.”
She has heard some of the homeless saying they will return to the parks when the parks open.”There is no answer to where else they should go. It’s a dilemma.”
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.