Facing the 'evil'

Not enough shelter space for homeless, some say
By: Jenifer Gee Journal News Editor
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James Lowe has “encountered the evil.” He takes medication for paranoid schizophrenia and has been homeless several times among other trials he’s faced in life. Recently, though, he’s been singing a different tune. On a sunny and warm March day, Lowe was entertaining a crowd of smiling faces at Placer County’s Welcome Center while strumming an electric guitar and singing the Eagles’ classic “Take it Easy.” “It tames the savage beast,” Lowe said of playing music. Lowe is one of many who have found themselves wandering the streets of Auburn and Placer County without a home. Right now, he’s lucky to find a roof over his head. Others are not so fortunate. “We’re the community that lacks the basic services necessary to keep homeless people off the streets,” said Susan Farrington, chairwoman of the Placer Consortium on Homelessness. One of the big things missing, Farrington said, is a shelter for homeless. The Gathering Inn has about 60 beds and in an emergency, the consortium can offer 100, Farrington said. “At any given time we have 200 or more homeless people without housing,” Farrington said. “We see a tremendous unmet need.” The problem is clear and plaguing just about every aspect of the state: a lack of money. Farrington said most of the federal dollars available go to large urban areas. “Because Placer County has a relatively high standard of living, people think we shouldn’t have a homeless problem but we do,” Farrington said. “That’s a problem that isn’t addressed with enough funding at the federal level and state level.” Police activity Living a life on the street can lead to problems with law enforcement. In some cases, a person’s criminal record is a reason they have problems finding a permanent home. When it comes to the area’s homeless population, local law enforcement say they are trying to take a more collaborative approach. “I try to look at everybody out here as individuals,” said Deputy Kevin Griffiths. Griffiths is the Sheriff’s Office transient liaison deputy and spends his shift talking to those who are homeless in and around Auburn as well as responding to other calls. “We’re seeing an influx of people due to bad economic times,” Griffiths said. Griffiths’ easy rapport and attempt to establish a relationship with those who consider themselves homeless represents a shift in how law enforcement approaches homeless individuals. “The perception that we’re out there busting camps is over,” said Dena Erwin, Placer County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman. Auburn Police Capt. John Ruffcorn roughly estimated that about 10 percent of the city’s calls all year revolve around homeless persons. He said mostly it’s to ask them to move from in front of a storefront after a business owner has called. Neither the Sheriff’s Office nor Auburn Police keep a separate statistic on homeless arrests. An informal poll of the Journal’s March arrest log, which focuses on crimes committed in and around the Auburn area, showed that 10 out of 42 arrests in March were of transients. Arrests ranged from public intoxication to possession of a controlled substance. One transient was booked into jail for allegedly trying to steal another man’s backpack filled with marijuana. Griffiths said a good portion of his arrests of homeless are for public intoxication. He said they’re booked in jail for their safety and the safety of others. The deputy also encounters parolees. The state’s Placer County parole office is located in Auburn and many who have been released from prison and cannot find a job or home stay put in the community. Griffiths said many shelters would not take in a parolee. “They’re poor decisions of the past are affecting their opportunities right now,” Griffiths said. “They don’t really have a choice.” Oftentimes Griffiths and other law enforcement have to tell homeless campers to pack it up and move along, especially when they are trespassing on private lands. Zoraida Ortiz has been living homeless in Auburn going on three years. She said she understands she cannot live on private property but it’s hard moving. “They’ll just find us wherever we go,” Ortiz said. Problems with help Griffiths said he and others have worked to try to help Ortiz get a bus ticket back to the East Coast, her former home. He said they’re trying to get her back there by the end of April so she can be there for the birth of her granddaughter. “She says she doesn’t drink around her kids,” Griffiths said. “We’re hoping this is a new start to her life.” But Lowe knows a new start is not so easy. “I interact with the homeless and my heart’s with them,” Lowe said. “It’s like an evil that knows how to hold you on the street … I’ve been there.” Reach Jenifer Gee at ---------- Homeless in Placer County This is the first in three part series on the homeless population in the Auburn area and Placer County. Sunday: What services are available to homeless Monday: What solutions are being proposed ----------