Supes ante up with study on homelessness

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Placer County supervisors took a small but significant step last week in addressing the problem of homelessness in our communities, and for that, the board is to be commended.

Supervisors on Tuesday approved a $50,000 contract with a nationally recognized expert on homelessness, Dr. Robert Marbut of San Antonio, Texas, to do two things: Assess the size and specifics of the homeless problem in Placer County, and develop an action plan to address it.

Marbut Consulting says it “helps communities to dramatically reduce homelessness by developing holistic and transformative systems that engage service providers, volunteers, businesses, government and, most importantly, homeless individuals and families.”

In addition to “mapping out services and housing options (and) identifying gaps in service in Auburn, the Tahoe area and the south county,” Marbut will also put together a community summit on the homeless issue. It will also meet with an as-yet unformed advisory group that will include law enforcement and business representatives.

Placer’s festering problem seemed to reach a turning point last spring, when three positive things occurred:

— The Auburn Police Department designated a police officer to be a liaison to the homeless, and Chief John Ruffcorn helped develop and implement an anti-panhandling plan;

— The Placer County Sheriff’s Department similarly designated a deputy as the agency’s homeless liaison;

— The Auburn Airport Business Park Association got on board with the effort.

The business group’s involvement was especially important because it represented the first real involvement by the private sector in a problem that’s very much public. When the business community buys in to a solution, the chance of success multiplies.

Regardless of one’s views on the homeless issue in Placer County — the two extremes being that they either be run out of town or embraced — the fact that these key players are all looking at the problem together is a good sign.

An even better sign is the public emergence of the Auburn Area Homeless Forum, a grassroots group that’s been quietly building membership, momentum and credibility since it formed in the back room of a local restaurant in November. Under the leadership of Gary Mapa of Applegate, an activist and volunteer, the Homeless Forum has coalesced, sharpened its mission and begun making its presence known.

As part of Marbut’s contract with the county, a homeless advisory group will be assembled. As it stands, that advisory group will include county government, law enforcement and business representatives.

It’s critical that the Auburn Area Homeless Forum be included in that group — and with more than just one representative. Perhaps more than any other entity, Mapa’s group has done its homework. It has researched homelessness solutions in other cities and states, and it has reached out relentlessly to local government officials.

Most important, it has done what no one else has. It has proposed at least a temporary solution: Why not spruce up the vacant, unused barracks at the DeWitt Center in North Auburn and turn them into a homeless shelter for the next two or three years, until a permanent solution can be found?

In a county that just OK’d $22 million for a new animal shelter, Mapa’s proposal seems not only reasonable and humanitarian but also timely — and there is reason for his urgency. Fall has arrived, bringing cooler overnight temperatures and already a smattering of rain. It’s getting darker earlier, which means the nights are even longer and bleaker for those who spend them without a roof over their heads.

In a guest column that ran in the Auburn Journal in July, Mapa wrote:

“The barracks can accommodate the very homeless individuals who are the daily topics of conversations locally, statewide, and nationally. … There is nothing to lose. This strategic plan, in the end, will save lives, save hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical and incarceration costs, and develop pathways to housing.”

The Homeless Forum’s vision and its proposed solution have earned it a full share of representation when that advisory committee is formed.

Whether the county goes along with the barracks plan or not, the headline here is that there is momentum. Groups and individuals are talking, local government is listening and responding, and money is being committed. All those things are essential if there’s ever to be a solution to this growing problem.

Whether Marbut’s study advocates the barracks as a temporary solution is yet to be seen. Indeed, whether the study is a silver bullet or just another report destined for a shelf at the Domes almost doesn’t matter.

Whatever else it does or doesn’t do, the report’s greatest value to Placer County residents may be that it finally breaks the logjam at the confluence of our politics, our money and our charity.