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Another View: Overview: How Auburn’s homeless issue is unique

By: Randi Swisley
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Homelessness is a problem that weighs heavily on our community.  Its tentacles are woven into multiple neighborhoods, businesses and county departments, all struggling to manage the problems from their own perspective.  One homeless person in our county is estimated to cost $40,000 per year for services such as mental health, substance abuse, law enforcement and medical treatment, and yet there is no cohesive plan to optimize and govern all of this activity and investment.

As a child growing up in Auburn, my only exposure to homeless people was on TV.  Then in the mid-70’s on my way to work early in the morning in downtown Sacramento, I drove by people sleeping on sidewalks.  It was a shocking and unexpected sight, but still seemed far from home.  Today it is impossible to go from one end of Auburn to the other without seeing destitute people on the street.

The growth of homelessness is not unique to Auburn.  Recent visits to San Diego, Sacramento, San Francisco, Portland, and Maui were all distractedly rampant with homeless compared to my trips to these same places in years past.

Several things set Auburn apart from other cities in this disturbing trend.  The number of chronically homeless (those who have lived on the streets for more than 5 years) is significantly above the national average, a disproportionately high number of women in our town are in this undesirable situation and Auburn is believed to harbor nearly half of the homeless in our county. 

The three shelters on this end of the county at DeWitt Center in North Auburn, Hospitality House in Grass Valley and The Gathering Inn in Roseville are all normally full and regularly turn away people seeking refuge. 

The 48-bed “dry” residential facility in Auburn administers alcohol and drug tests upon admittance and randomly throughout the day.  Passing these tests allows 24 hour access to the shelter and assistance from a professional case worker.  The goal of the residential facility is to find housing for each resident outside the shelter.

A second facility at the Auburn shelter allows access to food, water and 45 mats with sleeping bags.  Each day people are temporarily admitted at 4 p.m. and must leave at 7 a.m. the following morning. 

The Auburn shelter hosts meetings every night including “Ready to Rent” training, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Celebrate Recovery (faith-based 12 step program), bible study, and a women’s trauma group.  William Jessup University students perform on-site clinical work as one of the final steps in completion of their degrees.  

In the winter of 2014, a group of local Auburn businesses, non-profits and faith-based organizations called Right Hand Auburn advocated for an emergency homeless shelter to serve the Auburn area. Six months later, a building previously used as a jail by Placer County was opened as a shelter on a temporary 90 day agreement.  Last March, Placer County awarded the operational contract for the shelter to Volunteers of America Northern California & Northern Nevada.  Right Hand Auburn continues to be involved in fundraising and in coordinating a large number of volunteers throughout the community who prepare food for the shelter each night. 

Ironically, DeWitt State Mental Hospital housed patients on the same campus.  Today county law enforcement and the locally supported shelter are doing their best to manage homeless people at the exact same location where California previously funded a mental hospital with a full staff of psychiatrists and nurses.

Placer County is not organized well for access to the services designed to serve the indigent.  For example, booking and releasing from the county jail happens in Auburn, not in Lincoln or Rocklin.  Detox is on Cirby Hills Drive on the south end of Roseville and court appearances are usually required at the Santucci Center on the west end of Roseville.  These three locations are a half hour’s drive apart, but without a car, none of them are easily accessed with public transportation. Even if a person makes their way to the Detox Center, the chance of being admitted to one of the 10 beds is not likely.  The Center is normally full of patients with insurance to pay the $300/night fee for the 18 month program.

Placer County is the only county in the area that applied for received the federally funded Whole Person Care Grant. This funding is intended to stop serial Emergency Room users by providing mental health, housing, and substance abuse assistance to 150 people at a time.  This windfall provides the opportunity for improvements that could be noticeable by all of us.

Homelessness is a complex problem.  Recommendations are bountiful from the Planning Commission, the Sheriff’s Department, individual Supervisors, hospital emergency rooms, and numerous citizens and business owners.  The interest is high and many people are able to help.  Harnessing this energy and funding with a focused plan intended to coordinate our community in a common goal is called for.

Randi Swisley of Auburn is president of the Placer County League of Women Voters.