In the old Gold Rush town of Placerville, born from rough-hewn mining camps, a heralded social experiment is packing up its tents today.
After just more than 16 months, Hangtown Haven, a self-governing tent city of homeless residents grappling with mental illness, alcoholism and other life issues, is closing. Its demise will end a novel attempt by a small Sierra foothills community to address a major societal challenge.
This week, after a packed chamber of local citizens engaged in emotional debate, the Placerville City Council said Hangtown Haven has to go when its city permit expires today.
“What Hangtown Haven created was incredibly special,” said Placerville Mayor Wendy Thomas in offering its eulogy.
The camp, erected in July 2012 on a forested slope lent by a property owner just east of Placerville’s historic downtown, was kept clean and crime-free by homeless residents and community volunteers. It has hosted 25 to 40 people at any given time. And the city granted an extended reprieve in hopes the settlement could solve a persistent problem of homeless people taking over local parks or setting fires in the woods.
The Haven’s closing comes after complaints that the well-publicized effort also drew an influx of transients, still more illegal campgrounds and increased litter and property crime in the town of 10,400 residents.
Though police say people at Hangtown Haven weren’t to blame for the troubles, crews are to disconnect the camp’s electricity and water supply and pull out its Porta Potties and 38 tents. They’ll soon remove the community service sheds, the warming stove, the used books library and the big-screen TV that served as an outdoor movie theater.
On Nov. 1, nearly a dozen Placerville-area churches opened a rotating shelter system to provide nighttime lodging for a limited number of homeless people, including displaced Hangtown Haven residents, during the winter months.
But an enclave that came to view itself as an extended, homeless family is breaking up. Hangtown Haven resident Cody Oaks, 27, a former fast-food worker with emotional and learning disabilities, said he is going back to the streets or deeper into the chilly woods. “I’m not going into the shelter system – ever,” he said. “It’s just not my thing.”
Haven member Jennifer Webb, 39, simply sobbed. “I’m not holding up well at all,” she said.
With its donated tents and supplies, Hangtown Haven provided a refuge while Webb, diagnosed with a schizoaffective disorder, overcame getting “scared to death” by most everything around her. She just recently started to apply for work.
Even as the camp offered sanctuary, Placerville Police Chief Scott Heller said officers’ contacts with transients elsewhere spiked by nearly 100 percent in the past year. Burglaries in town went up by nearly 25 percent and theft by 60 percent as police dealt with an influx of homeless people from Nevada, San Francisco, Los Angeles and as far away as New York.
Heller said the transient population outside Hangtown Haven boomed for a range of reasons: the lagging economy; early release of more jail inmates after California began sending state prisoners to live in county facilities; and “a misconception,” apparently fanned among homeless wanderers, “that Placerville has become a destination point.”
On Broadway, the road leading up to the Haven, weather-beaten people became parking lot regulars; at higher elevations, they sometimes sprawled along the winding road. Heller said some were “a chronic public nuisance.”
Robert Caruso, of the Smith Flat Road Homeowners Association, blamed the camp for luring unwanted elements “and the liquor bottles, debris and fire pits” near the bike trail by his home.
Judy Ball, a stroke victim who moved to the Smith Flat area to recover amid the rustic surroundings, said transients broke into her house twice. Once she grabbed a knife and chased one off. “I know the homeless are under stress,” said Ball, who moved out. “But my God...”
Days before the campground’s scheduled closure, Frank Matous, a member of the Hangtown Haven governing board, reflected on events in his “office,” a plastic shed that holds the camp’s movie collection and Internet service. Nearby were home drug-testing kits, their presence meant to scare straight would-be drug users in the settlement, and an instructional resource book, “Managing Anxiety.”
“This place has given me one giant family – and a very sober family,” said Matous, who got a handle on his drinking problem there. The former grocery store employee, self-taught in computers, recently scored work doing an informational video for a bank. He is looking to pick up other jobs in Web design, and has an offer of lodging from a friend.
A year ago, Matous, 49, was unemployed, on the streets and often drunk. He moved to the Haven, off Broadway near U.S. Highway 50, with Lilly, his Boston Terrier service dog. He designed the camp’s website and Facebook page and became Hangtown Haven’s “human resource officer,” helping fellow residents find work though online postings of résumés and job interests.
Matous said he fears eviction will return many fellow campers to unhealthy associations and be “a trigger to start drinking again.”
Set up by a local nonprofit, Hometown Haven Inc., the settlement only admitted people who could prove they had been Placerville residents for six months and had passed background checks to ensure they were neither violent offenders nor sexual predators. It maintained standards for conduct and expelled those who didn’t follow the rules. Some 125 homeless people found shelter there, with 37 finding housing and jobs and scores more getting mental health, drug and alcohol services.
Hangtown Haven resident Rebecca Nylander, 40, who suffers from anxiety disorders, said the town is buying into a “myth” that its homeless problem is somehow new. She said most people on the streets “aren’t attracted to us. They don’t come here.”
But as the City Council considered a request Tuesday to extend Hangtown Haven’s permit, resident Joseph Nichols thundered at council members. “This is an epidemic from all over the county, and this little town is too small to put up with this,” said Nichols, who complained of drunks passing out near his house.
Mayor Thomas, an early proponent of the camp, noted the city had promised to keep it open only until Nov. 15. The plan was to give El Dorado County a chance to develop a strategy for dealing with homeless people who wanted shelter and help.
“It’s so easy to lead with our heart on this issue,” said Thomas, arguing that Hangtown Haven’s time was up. “And yet as a council ... we have a charge of protecting the residents of our city.”
Hangtown Haven Inc. Director Arthur Edwards, a retired aerospace engineer who works with homeless people, pitched El Dorado County supervisors on a plan to relocate the camp to county-owned property on Perks Court near Missouri Flat Road and U.S. Highway 50. Edwards said his organization would erect 38 sheds, equipped with beds and dressers, as a replacement encampment. But the plan drew opposition from nearby residents.
Supervisor Ron Briggs, the board chairman, said the county is skeptical about more campgrounds but interested in potential state and federal grants to build transitional housing for the homeless.
“The positive that has come out of Hangtown Haven is that our county staff is now looking at finding funding solutions and looking for properties where we can put long-term housing, to build units, not just shacks,” Briggs said.
With no quick solution in the offing, Nylander on Thursday took down the white picket fencing and wind chimes from outside her Hangtown Haven tent. She has a place to stay with a local family, but was sad, nonetheless, as she packed up her belongings.
“The homeless population is not going to go away,” Nylander said. “And they’re pulling the rug out from under 30 people. This place worked. It was a miracle. And it worked.”