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Placer County leaders move closer to approving homeless shelter

Daniel Meyer, left, Robert Borden, middle, and Richard Zerbo, hang out behind a vacant bank building near Bell Road and Highway 49 on Tuesday, March 4, 2014 in Auburn, Calif. Placer County supervisors are considering a plan to create a temporary shelter in north Auburn.
Daniel Meyer, left, Robert Borden, middle, and Richard Zerbo, hang out behind a vacant bank building near Bell Road and Highway 49 on Tuesday, March 4, 2014 in Auburn, Calif. Placer County supervisors are considering a plan to create a temporary shelter in north Auburn. rpench@sacbee.com

Placer County appears closer to approving a new homeless shelter in north Auburn after the Board of Supervisors voted Thursday to place the proposal on next month’s agenda.

Supporters of the controversial plan say the shelter is needed to house the growing number of homeless people in the Auburn area. Under the plan, an old Army barracks in the Placer County Government Center would be used to house about 40 homeless people each night.

Led by the Rev. Mike Carroll of St. Teresa’s Church in Auburn, more than 100 people packed the board chambers Thursday to advocate for the shelter. Supporters planted signs that read “Love Thy Neighbor” outside the building.

During the three-hour special meeting, supervisors listened intently to a barrage of emotionally tinged, faith-based testimony from more than a dozen residents and community members, with speakers frequently invoking God and the crowd at times erupting into applause.

“Helping them will help us all,” said Auburn Vice Mayor Bill Kirby, arguing that concentrating homeless people in one area would keep them healthy and reduce hospital visits paid for by taxpayers.

For the same reason that Kirby spoke in favor, Supervisor Jim Holmes voiced opposition.

Holmes, who represents the government center area, expressed fear that homeless people who may have criminal records or mental health issues would disturb several schools that are only a few miles away.

“What happens when they leave the shelter? Where do they go?” Holmes asked.

However, Holmes was in the minority, with most of the five supervisors speaking favorably of the idea.

“What we have been doing isn’t working,” said Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery, who represents parts of Auburn and eastern Placer County.

“They’re here. We need to provide services to them.”

The estimated 35 homeless people in greater Auburn are spread across various encampments in parks, neighborhoods and wooded areas. Placer County has only one homeless shelter, a rotating collection of churches operated by The Gathering Inn, a Roseville nonprofit.

In recent years, the city of Auburn, along with unincorporated north Auburn, has become a hot spot for the county’s homeless population. About 600 homeless people reside in Placer County, and 350 are not in shelters, according to the county’s 2013 homeless count.

The number of people classified as “chronic homeless” countywide has more than tripled to 138 since 2007, reports the Placer Consortium on Homelessness, which includes nonprofits and local governments.

Last year, Carroll founded Right Hand Auburn to help the homeless population. The nonprofit already has raised $60,000 for the shelter and has pledged to operate it without county funds. The facility would be open from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. so transients can receive two meals and a hot shower, Carroll said.

The Board of Supervisors on Feb. 3 will consider a temporary, one-year conditional use permit because the area is not zoned for a shelter. The facility, most recently used as a minimum security jail, must receive several building code upgrades before doors can open. It is unclear when the shelter may be ready.

County officials are waiting on the results of a homeless needs study by an outside consultant, and they emphasized the shelter is by no means a permanent solution.

Despite the overwhelming turnout in support Thursday, the issue has proved divisive even within church circles.

Larry Yanni, a member of St. Teresa’s, took to the podium to rail against the shelter, citing the close proximity of homes and schools. Halfway through, he paused and turned to Carroll to apologize for his opposition.

Yanni lives in the 32-home Stonebrook community less than half a mile from the shelter site and is president of the homeowners association.

“I’ve been voting with my feet. I don’t go to church as much,” he said outside the board chambers.

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

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