County Balks at Placerville's Homeless Camp Take-over Request
PLACERVILLE CALIF. - Last year the City of Placerville set-up a Homeless Camp on Upper Broadway known as, Hangtown Haven, but now they want it gone. After a one-year temporary permit to "find a suitable permanent location" is about to expire, the city is asking the county to provide space for the Hangtown Haven Inc. residential encampment at its property on Perks Court off Missouri Flat Road at Highway 50. The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to create a “task force” to consider the issue from various perspectives, including the most reasonable location, the facility itself and “risk” to the county.
Is Upper Broadway’s Hangtown Haven Going to Become a Ghost Town? Not because of a move to Perks Court. The City of Placerville experiment with an authorized homeless camp known as Hangtown Haven has overcome many problems but now the city is asking the county to take over. However, due to the extended lengths of time that controversial Government decisions take, it is unlikely the county could even respond to the request in the time before the City’s self-imposed deadline of early November. It is highly unlikely that the county will be able to offer space and take responsibility for the camp by this deadline, so now the question becomes, “what will Placerville do when the temporary use permit expires this fall?”
The number of homeless in the county is estimated to be from the hundreds to the thousands, depending on the manner of how ‘homeless’ is defined.
Prior to 2012, a loose network of churches and philosophic organizations ran programs to aid the homeless in El Dorado County. Some of these groups had tried offering their own church-based homeless shelters, but found that governmental regulations prohibited any semi-permanent ‘residences’ in a location that did not meet minimum ‘residential’ regulations. In response, several groups worked together and shuttled the homeless from one temporary location (a few days) to a new temporary location, in order to avoid the “length-of-stay” limitation. This was known as the “winter nomad shelter” program.
Although this solved some problems, it had unintended consequences and lead to other problems. Moving a large group of homeless, en mass, from location to location exposed the groups to significant liability outside their normal insurance coverage. Moreover, the logistical problems of moving the homeless from shelter to shelter, and more so, back and forth between needed support infrastructure, like food and social services, made the program unworkable. What was needed was a more permanent location that is nearby those needed social services.
In 2012, Homeless Shelter Advocates found a friend in Placerville City Councilwomen Wendy Mattson. Mattson, well-liked and influential, became a champion for a more permanent solution to the homeless shelter problem. By the summer, the city had unanimously approved the plan for a camp to combat the homeless problem, giving it a 90-day trial run. In July, the Council had approved a plan for volunteer organizations to run an “official” city homeless camp. Called Hangtown Haven, the camp began operating Aug. 9 on an acre on land along Broadway Street by the old Greyhound bus station.
In July of 2012, Hangtown Haven Inc. was created to design and operate the homeless camp in cooperation with the city of Placerville, concerned churches and other non-profit organizations and individuals in the community. The Wilkinson family leased undeveloped land on Upper Broadway to the new Hangtown Haven. Homeless guests and volunteers worked together to prepare a leased acre of land by clearing brush, grading and putting in drainage to create the camp. Donated portable toilets and a wash station, a common fire pit area and a temporary building to house volunteer camp monitors were added.
Marie Cook of the Community Resource Center runs the camp and a council comprised of residents of the camp. Ron Sachs, with Hangtown Haven Inc., helped oversee the $78,000 project, all paid for through donations.
During the initial 90-day trial period, Hangtown Haven Inc. was given a Temporary Use Permit (TUP) by the city to operate the homeless camp until November 2013, giving the organization and volunteers “time to find a suitable site for a permanent shelter.” This week Mayor Thomas wrote, “we must also be very aware of commitments made to our citizens. The council reluctantly approved the TUP last year due to safety concerns at the current location. Those safety concerns are heightened during the winter months due to shorter days and severe weather conditions. With that approval, the council clearly stated to the leaders of Hangtown Haven that the facility must be closed at that location by Nov. 15.”
In January 2013, Hangtown Haven Manager Art Edwards said, “During the six month period since then (camp opening), we have offered a place to live for as many as 40 homeless — all of whom were previous residents of Placerville. The site has the capacity to house approximately 60 guests.” Six months later Edwards said, “The program has evolved from simply providing food and modest shelter into a much broader social service agency. “ Hangtown Haven proposes to transition from tent camping to a complex of two-person "micro-houses," 8-foot-by-12-foot prefabricated structures that homeless people can assemble on the site. Hangtown Haven would than rent them to residents.
Also in January Edwards said, “We’ve been looking for properties and at existing buildings for months, but all of them have had different problems associated with them, so we’re stalled at the moment.”
The City of Placerville was not stalled. The city was doing what it said in watching the operations of the camp and hearing feedback from community members. Moreover, the community was responsive with both praise and criticism. The operations of the camp itself have been widely praised but accompanying problems, related to life outside the camp, are also widely criticized.
The primary criticisms are coming from two constituent groups: Nearby property owners; nearby business owners. Property owners have complained about the detrimental effect to their property values when a homeless encampment is allowed nearby. Business owners have complained that the effect of homeless people loitering around their businesses have hurt business at a time when they are struggling to survive. “Homeless people wandering around, drinking or using drugs,” and “people going through their garbage” are typical complaints.
Now Placerville Mayor Wendy (Mattson) Thomas, who is credited with making the vision of a legal campground a reality, is leading the request to move the camp to a location outside the city. Wendy Thomas, who owns property in Placerville's Broadway commercial district and operated a business there for 17 years, said she was keenly aware of the effect of the homeless population on area businesses and residents.”
Calling the current Broadway location not “suitable,” Placerville Mayor Wendy Thomas described hazardous traffic and the lack of sidewalks, electricity, and sewer facilities precluded the property from offering a more permanent camp. Thomas expressed concern that there was a liability to the city at its current location because the city created a dangerous condition by approving the facitiy at its current location without suitable foot access for 40 people on the busy road.
Art Edwards, president of Hangtown Haven Inc., said the current site is too close to the heavily traveled Broadway Placerville thoroughfare.
Through Mayor Thomas, the city is asking El Dorado County to develop a “legal temporary encampment at Perks Court for a few years,” at no cost to the public or to local taxpayers. The city is asking the county to provide space for the Hangtown Haven Inc. residential encampment at its property on Perks Court off Missouri Flat Road at Highway 50.
• Several speakers challenged the proposal, suggesting that “If it’s such a wonderful program, why is the city trying to get rid of it,” and “if it works, why fix it?”
• the traffic load in that location is said to be 3,000 vehicles a day. “Missouri Flat has 33,000 a day,”
• Many speakers at the recent BOS meeting decried the proposal to move the camp to the Missouri Flat-Highway 50 intersection. While few used the term “blight,” several speakers suggested that a tourist’s early view of the area from the freeway should not be rows of tents or plywood micro-homes on the side of the hill.
• The area is zoned for commercial activity, and existing or future businesses would not welcome “homeless people wandering around, drinking or using drugs,” and “some businesses are already complaining about people going through their garbage.”
• “Perks Court site would be ludicrous, and why would we put that kind of image at our gateway?”
• property is “extremely valuable” and could be the location of a “7-11 or a mini-mart.”
• “Perks Court is not ready for development … and access to the property is not finished.”
• “a lot of ifs that I haven’t seen resolved”
• “a place of grace and second chances” and a “safe place for the forgotten people.”
• The county “bought the properties for use if needed for the Highway 50-Missouri Flat Interchange, not for this.” The Interchange is not complete and Kris Payne, former Department of Transportation engineer, said that there needs to be some conditions for mitigation established prior to development.
• Board Chairman Ron Briggs suggested that the matter has created a “major shift in policy,” that is, a focus away from simply “helping the homeless,” to a more targeted effort to establish “transitional housing” in the county. Toward that end, he said, “Moving (homeless) people from one place to another isn’t necessarily a solution.” He acknowledged that he is not a “fan” of the Perks Court location.
• District 1 Supervisor Ron Mikulaco said that he had to look at it as a “business decision, not an emotional one.” “Does the county want to go into the homeless business?” he asked. “El Dorado County spends tremendous amounts of money on helping people… but we have to weigh everyone’s position. This is about transitional (housing), not a homeless camp.”
• Board of Supervisors eventually voted unanimously to create a “task force” to consider the issue from various perspectives, including the most reasonable location, the facility itself and “risk” to the county.
What is next
BOC Chairman Briggs directed Chief Administrative Office analyst Mike Applegarth to “identify the hurdles and determine how to handle them. I’d like our staff to get us some answers.” Applegarth said, “The issues are complex and maybe we can have something before November, but if we don’t get this correct, we will be back here in a year or two, like the city is now.”
District 3 Supervisor Brian Veerkamp represents both Placerville and Perks Court. Veerkamp had recommended that the county hear the presentation and consider the proposal. He has also agreed to be the board’s representative on the upcoming task force.
Is Upper Broadway’s Hangtown Haven Going to Become a Ghost Town?
It looks like Placerville Mayor’s request to move Hangtown Haven to county property might be more about saber-rattling than a serious proposal to move the camp to the intersection of Highway 50 and Missouri Flat Road. It may be that the proposed move was more about giving incentive for the program's managers to find a better location now, than it was about a last-minute idea to use a high-profile, high-value, county-owned lot, that was sure to generate significant resistance.
Regarding the city’s ability or willingness to extend the temporary use permit for Hangtown Haven, Mayor Thomas wrote:
“Ultimately the council does have the discretion to extend the TUP. With that in mind, we must also be very aware of commitments made to our citizens. … the council clearly stated to the leaders of Hangtown Haven that the facility must be closed at that location by Nov. 15. Ultimately the council will be working collaboratively with the county and will weigh all their options going forward, given all necessary information, including the results of the county appointed task force.”
Art Edwards, president of Hangtown Haven Inc., said the organization was presenting its proposal to the board in September and that “the supervisors are expected to act on the request in October” so they could prepare the land and move in November. However, the county staff has expressed that, because of the complexities of the issues, it is unlikely that the staff could fully respond before November. This initial 'research & proposal development' delay and legal notice requirements, make it unlikely that the county could even answer the question before the city’s self-imposed deadline comes and goes.
Many familiar with the statuary and political difficulties of approving a homeless camp on county owned property say that even 6-months would be unimaginably fast. Among the thorny issues is the unprecedented move of leasing county-owned property to a private homeless-camp-evolving-to-transitional-housing. Complicating matters is that the property is highly visible, located across the street from the area’s only hotel, in the heart of the county’s fastest growing economic engine, and is part of a larger project that might require the property over the next two years.
The Perk’s Court property being part of the Hwy 50 Interchange expansion might be the single thing that slows the project down. Determining the property’s viability requires analysis of the continued need of that piece of property. That is not the only obstacle that will add inertia to county approval. Commercial and residential property owners’ opposition will be formable. The resistance put up by MoFlat parkway community will far exceed that which was seen when the city of Placerville first approved the camp for upper Broadway.
As the chances of the county being able to respond, have public hearings, and approve the use before November seem unrealistic, the question becomes, what is Placerville going to do about that deadline if the county cannot make an agreeable response before winter?
These are some comments made in the last week since the BOS heard Placerville’s request:
Though not in possession of a fully-operational crystal ball, I'd guess that the likely resolution of this matter at the hands of the inter-agency task force will be in the trusty black hole where politicians customarily find refuge. At Tuesday's meeting John McCoy alleged political cowardice on the part of the
2008/09 Board. Presumably this was in respect of the nearly $1.5M Community Development Block Grant awarded in 2008 by the State for a 64-bed year-round full-service emergency shelter for homeless persons in El Dorado County. Somehow the Board managed to kill that project without appearing to have done so.
Put a year round homeless camp consisting of sheds and tents and transients (some undoubtedly criminals, sex registrants and mentally unstable) less than a mile away from Herbert Green School? If this was such a great concept, why doesn't Placerville keep it in their city near the seventh day adventist school?
No one wants a homeless shantytown on perks court along the new bike trail, especially the stroller pushing moms. Ask the best western hotel across the street if they want every out of town guest having their first impression of our area to be a smorgasbord of tents, sheds and vagrants? And what about the residents who live on Perks Court itself? Do the taxpayers want their land (county owned) given out for 5 dollars a year so a few people who need to feel important can preside over a homeless kingdom? I can't believe this issue is even up for debate. From what I can see Hangtown Haven has about 50 vocal supporters who don't care about any of the questions I pose. They are willing to ruin the quality of life for the majority so that 30-40 vagrants can be on a year round camping trip in the middle of the Missouri Flat corridor. They call people like me "NIMBYS" on their Hangtown haven Facebook page, however I don't see Hangtown haven or any of their associates offering up their house, backyard or neighborhood as the site for their invented homeless camp. A false sense of demand has been created for this homeless camp and those pushing it care nothing about the obvious consequences it brings. Just look at upper Broadway and how run down it has become. Empty store fronts, trash, people in the roadway, cigarettes being discarded everywhere...
"Through Mayor Thomas, the city is asking El Dorado County to develop a “legal temporary encampment at Perks Court for a few years,” at no cost to the public or to local taxpayers." In what universe does the taxpayers not pay for everything the government does? Even the "task force" costs the public and the local taxpayers. How do these people win elections? My Labrador is much harder to fool than the average voter.
Just moved to Placerville from San Jose where they also have homeless camps next to the freeways. It doesn't paint a very pretty picture.
The Reality of the situation is that the Upper Broadway location has operated with a pretty clean bill of health and very few problems. It is close to services and homeless people can walk to the places they need to go. There is an effort by Broadway landlords and businesses to push the homeless out of Broadway and the City. I've heard many stories about how they have tried to get rid of them including removing park benches along the sidewalks. Perks Court is the wrong location, as it is basically an island surrounded by six lanes on the west and north and leaves the homeless stranded and landlocked from services and unable to get into Placerville. It also will present a horrible eyesore to visitors driving through Placerville - what an entry monument. Nothing is worse than homeless camps right next to the freeway. The entrance to Placerville will look like Shanty Town.
Does anybody else not see the huge conflict of interest Mayor Thomas and her family has on Upper Broadway with all the commercial property they own??