Auburn pastor pushes Placer County to open old barracks as homeless shelter

Richard Zerbo, 50, uses a sign to ask for money in a shopping center parking lot near Bell Road and Highway 49 on Tuesday, March 4, 2014 in Auburn, Calif.
Richard Zerbo, 50, uses a sign to ask for money in a shopping center parking lot near Bell Road and Highway 49 on Tuesday, March 4, 2014 in Auburn, Calif. rpench@sacbee.com

Saying the community needs to have a heart, an Auburn pastor is pushing Placer County officials to transform an old Army barracks into a permanent homeless shelter.

The Rev. Mike Carroll of St. Teresa’s Church said he believes the time is ripe to explore building a new shelter in the Auburn area because of the increasing number of homeless people camped on the streets and in the nearby woods.

The city of Auburn, along with unincorporated north Auburn, has in recent years become a hot spot for the county’s homeless population. The number of people classified as “chronic homeless” countywide has more than tripled to 138 since 2007, according to the Placer Consortium on Homelessness, which is composed of nonprofits and local governments.

“We need to do something more than just talk about it,” Carroll said. “Not that talk or prayer isn’t important.”

Carroll last year founded Right Hand Auburn, a nonprofit that advocates for homeless people. His organization is seeking to open up an Army barracks that was most recently used to house minimum security inmates of the Placer County jail. Those inmates were transferred to a new facility in Roseville that opened in June.

Carroll’s group already has raised $60,000 for the effort and has pledged to operate the facility without county funds. The shelter would be open daily from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. the next day so transients can receive two meals and a hot shower, Carroll said.

“A lot of people have been out of work. They have fallen down the cracks,” he said. “We must have room in our hearts.”

Despite an impassioned plea before the Placer County Board of Supervisors last month, Carroll has had little success in moving his proposal forward.

County officials are waiting on the results of a homeless needs study being conducted by an outside consultant, and they have expressed hesitation in advancing other plans. The barracks is part of the Placer County Government Center, and its use would need approval by the Board of Supervisors.

“It’s critically important that we first have that informed public discussion about the current challenges and how best we move forward,” said Graham Knaus, assistant director of health and human services at Placer County.

Supervisor Jack Duran said converting the barracks into a shelter is unfeasible because the Placer County Sheriff’s Office is still using the laundry facilities there. Duran noted that less than 50 percent of the building is vacant.

The county is paying $50,000 to Robert Marbut, a renowned national homeless consultant, for completing a study on the homeless population. The report is scheduled to be released in the next two months.

Marbut, in a phone interview from Florida, said it was premature to discuss Carroll’s plan.

“It is clear to me that we need something up in Auburn,” Marbut said. “How big, the dimension and scope is yet to be determined.”

Placer County does not have a permanent homeless shelter. The nonprofit Gathering Inn operates a mobile shelter nightly that rotates from church to church. However, the group has stringent rules for accessing its services, including a requirement that users remain sober.

Carroll’s shelter would seek more flexibility in admitting homeless people.

“I’m not against the Gathering Inn, but you must be totally sober and clean over there. That’s a different clientele altogether,” Carroll said.

Carroll’s proposal has drawn mixed reviews from the Board of Supervisors.

Supervisor Kirk Uhler, the incoming chairman of the board, expressed willingness to put the issue on the board agenda.

Calling it “worthy of consideration,” the Granite Bay supervisor suggested that any approval from the county should come with conditions.

“We can’t just provide people with a hot shower,” he said. “We’ve got to put them on a path through self-sufficiency” through programs.

Supervisor Jim Holmes, who represents parts of north Auburn, voiced opposition to the plan, saying it would be more prudent to wait for the results of the outside study.

“It’s like shooting in the dark without knowing all the information we need to know,” he said.

Holmes, who a decade ago owned an auto repair business on Highway 49, noted that some of the chronic homeless people enjoy this way of life.

The homeless people “had their system. They didn’t want to be bothered with rules,” the supervisor said.

He added, “Some of the folks are still out there. That’s their way of life. If they don’t want help, you can’t force them into getting help.”

Call The Bee’s Richard Chang at (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.

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