A wearisome, vicious cycle was emerging with Auburn’s homeless population: Greater numbers were congregating on the streets by day and filling the DeWitt minimum security prison by night. Neither the city nor the county had adequate housing or facilities to deal with the situation, so the problem persisted. Residents and businesses were frustrated. Tempers flared, but nothing was done.
A group of community members vowed to act and started a grassroots effort that has culminated in turning the partially vacated barracks at DeWitt into a fully-staffed, round-the-clock facility open to Auburn’s homeless. But it hasn’t been easy. The group has encountered numerous roadblocks along the way and continues to fight for what they believe are necessary and vital services for the city’s homeless population.
One of those champions is Father Mike Carroll, parish priest for Auburn’s St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church. Carroll has seen the homeless population increase 10-fold in the decade since he’s worked there. The daily circuit of the homeless would typically start at DeWitt, where the homeless were released before dawn, then move to the local bail bondsman, followed by breakfast at St. Teresa’s, then some time at the local Target before they ended up back at DeWitt – all before 9:00 a.m.
“We would try to give them a hot breakfast or a card to get coffee and a bagel at Bel Air Grocery, but it was only a temporary fix,” Carroll says. “We needed to do something and we needed to do it now, because the situation was not improving and the homeless were not going anywhere.”
Life also started to become more dangerous for those living on the streets; they were becoming victims of assaults and traffic accidents. One homeless person suffering from mental illness stepped in front of a moving vehicle, causing the driver, a mother with a young child in tow, to unintentionally strike and kill him. Several other homeless were found dead by the railroad tracks.
To get started, Carroll arranged dinner meetings at his home, inviting several community members who had an interest in helping. The group included professionals like Brigit Barnes, owner of local land use law firm, Brigit S. Barnes & Associates. Together they formed Right Hand Auburn, a nonprofit corporation, to be the overarching umbrella for its efforts, and decided to float the idea of turning the defunct portion of DeWitt into a homeless shelter.
Barnes’ first step was to propose their idea to Placer County’s district 3 supervisor, Jim Holmes. He directed her to run it by the county executive, who responded that the project was not a priority and the county was not interested. Undeterred, Barnes approached the supervisors directly. Supervisor Jack Duran, who was also the chairman of the Placer County Board of Supervisors at the time, listened to the group’s ideas and agreed to hold hearings on the matter.
Following the hearings, the board voted 3-2 in favor of an emergency nighttime shelter for a 90-day trial. The vote passed in February 2015 and the group had four months to get the facility up and running by June 1. Part of the conditions included installing full fire sprinklers and making the facility ADA compliant, neither of which had been done when the facility served as a prison.
“Apparently the prison had been grandfathered in and did not have to comply with the new laws, but we did — which completely blew our budget,” Barnes says. Instead of the original estimated $60,000 to renovate the facility, the costs swelled to $140,000. Through donations from the community, the group secured $40,000 but was still short of what they needed. “We also couldn’t use volunteers to make the improvements,” says Barnes. “We had to hire professionals and pay prevailing wages to all employees.” To make up the budget gap, four members of the board of Right Hand Auburn took out a line of credit. And with the help of local churches and the business community, Right Hand Auburn raised $275,000. “Thirty percent of the money we have raised has come from churches,” says Barnes. “The rest is from private donations.”
On June 1, the facility opened to Auburn’s homeless. The site access agreement limited the capacity to a maximum of 47 people, which is comprised of about two-thirds men and one-third women. The facility is staffed by three full-time personnel provided by Volunteers of America. The shelter begins intake around 5:00 p.m., followed by dinner. The homeless are released after breakfast at around 7:00 a.m.
To run the facility, the VOA contracts with Right Hand Auburn to operate and manage the shelter. The VOA also provides ancillary services, including assistance in locating jobs and permanent housing.
While the new temporary arrangement helped with the homeless population at night, it didn’t solve the problem during the day. So in August, the group went back to the board of supervisors to propose moving to a 24/7 system, which the board unanimously approved. The county also approved a partial funding proposal by a vote of 4-1 in October, paving the way for 47 people to utilize the shelter on a full-time basis, plus an overflow room for 28-50 more nighttime guests during the winter.
Under the new budget structure, Right Hand Auburn and local churches help to defray the overall costs not covered by local government. “We aren’t a government agency and we only have so much money, so we are taking this one step at a time,” says Barnes.
At the next county meeting in March, a permanent location for the shelter will be discussed. “We broke all the rules of political negotiation to help get this done,” says Barnes. “But credit does go to Placer County. They have done a 360 from where they were initially. And now we can actually see a solution taking shape.”