Each Other’s Company

February 3, 2017

After 46 years in Nevada County, I finally decided to take a ride on the Gold Country Stage. That’s our local bus, and if you cherish values like inclusivity, diversity, community, and equality, I recommend it. It’s a righteous ride.

On my first trip, which started in Nevada City but took me mostly around Grass Valley, I wasn’t surprised to see that many of my fellow passengers were homeless folks. Homeless people ride the bus not only to get places, but also because it provides a safe haven that’s cool in the summer, warm in the winter, and dry when it rains. Many homeless people are ill, injured, or disabled—walking any distance doesn’t work for them. On the bus they can sit back in comfort and get some needed rest, with no one looking askance or telling them to move along. On the contrary, bus drivers are respectful, helpful, and welcoming. They take an active part in much of what happens on the bus, holding together an inclusive social structure that helps everyone feel safe.

What surprised me was how much friendly conversation there was, and how ready everyone was to offer helpful information about routes, transfers, convenient stops, and anything else a rookie rider like me might need to know. No one is expected to participate in this impromptu community unless they want to, but the opportunity for engagement and human connection is there. In spades. It made me wonder: What besides environmental sustainability are we who use personal transportation giving up?

That first ride was on a warm day last spring. I had no idea what the fare was. “1.50 a ride,” the driver told me, and of course I had no coins. “I’ll just give you two one-dollar bills,” I said, but he demurred. “No, just put in a dollar. Someone else this morning didn’t have change and put in two. You can ride on his fifty cents.” Nice. I didn’t know where the bus was going, either, but I didn’t care. I was out for adventure, and right there in the front seat was Lynn, one of my favorite Hospitality House guests and always an adventure in herself. She was reading, as usual, but put down her book and patted the empty seat beside her invitingly. Ever the master of the suggestive expression, she gave me a knowing look. “We don’t see you here very often.”

Lynn was short, slender, aging, and carefully made up. She was eccentric and smart. She’d been staying at the shelter for the past few weeks, though several months earlier our housing staff had found her a house-sharing situation with a woman her own age who, like Lynn, had a dog.

“Whatever happened to that place?” I asked.

“Oh God. She didn’t want a housemate, she wanted a friend, which is not what I had in mind.” Lynn’s deep, theatrical voice made me laugh despite a feeling of frustration—our goal at the shelter is to help people sustain their housing. “She said we could walk our dogs together and offered to give me a manicure.” She held out spectacularly sculpted, brilliantly colored nails for me to see. “Do I look like I need a manicure?”

“No! Your nails are beautiful!”

“I did them myself, and have done since I was a child, when my grandmother taught me how. She liked to say, ‘A lady should always work with her hands—but never look like she does.’” Lynn’s tone softened as she reminisced about her childhood in Berkeley. When she’d reached college age, her parents thought UC was too big, so she went to Mills College in Oakland—an excellent school, she said, but she’d wanted to major in anthropology, for which Berkeley was famous at that time. In fact, she said, as sales manager at the University of California Press, her father had had a hand in the publication of Theodora Kroeber’s renowned book Ishi in Two Worlds.

We spent several minutes talking about that book before we alighted at the Tinloy depot in Grass Valley, whence Lynn walked into town, while I sat on a bench to wait for another bus. Several Hospitality House guests were waiting there, too, and I struck up a conversation with one of them, a painfully thin woman in her 70s named Sara. She was sitting in the sun, which was quite hot by now, counting a handful of pennies over and over to see if she’d have enough money for a return ticket to the shelter. Her mouth was sunken because she’d lost most of her teeth, and she was disabled from a serious foot injury related to her diabetes. The 4-pronged cane standing next to her had probably come from the collection of walking aids kept at the shelter for the many people who need them.

In her working life, Sara was eager to explain, she’d clerked in the clothing departments of stores like Roos-Atkins, Gottschalk’s, and JC Penney’s. She described how she loved to display the new fashions that came in, and how she appreciated the discounts that enabled her to acquire a beautiful wardrobe. “Now I only have three t-shirts and two pairs of pants to my name. But why would I want more clothes?” Her voice fell. “I’d have no place to put them.”

When my next bus arrived, I sat down with yet another older woman. I didn’t know her, but she had a purposeful, determined look that attracted me. We headed up South Church Street and over to Brighton, where the vibrant spring sun shone down on the neighborhood’s pretty little houses and flowering trees.

“How’s your day going?” I asked. Not a scintillating icebreaker, but she responded openly.

“Oh, I’m tired today,” she sighed. “I started hitchhiking out to 49 from my cabin on the Ridge at 6:00 this morning. I do it every Tuesday, so I can catch the bus to my weekly cleaning job down here in Grass Valley.” The cabin, it turned out, was quite remote, situated at the end of a long dirt road where early morning rides were hard to come by. That morning, though, she’d actually been picked up.

“Yeah, I got lucky. Can’t complain! And I got to take a shower today too. I have no running water, so I shower every week down here at my job. That’s a good thing in the winter, I can tell you, because the cabin doesn’t have any heat, either.”

Knowing that HUD’s definition of a dwelling meant for human habitation includes running water and a heat source, I realized that, at least technically, my companion was homeless.

Our conversation was interrupted by the whirlwind arrival of a wild-looking redhead—her hair flying, her clothes in complete disarray, and her face, which was strikingly beautiful, contorted in anguish. She threw herself onto the seat in front of us and, facing out into the aisle, started up a stream of heartbroken sighs and low moans. She had a black eye. As we approached the end of Brighton Street, she jumped up as suddenly as she’d sat down and ran to the front of the bus.

“Where are we?” she cried to the driver. “They told me to get off by the beautiful horse. I need to get off at the beautiful horse!”

A chorus of instructions rang through the bus, quelled by the authoritative voice of the driver, who pulled over next to the draft horse at the fairgrounds, near Brighton Greens, location of the offices of the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Coalition.

I decided to move up to the front seat, where I’d seen our guest Sharon sit down just behind the driver. Like Lynn—and so many others of our guests—she was bright and interesting, someone I enjoyed talking with. She’d been a legal assistant in the DA’s office before multiple sclerosis debilitated her to the point where she couldn’t work anymore. As a consequence of losing her job, she’d spent down her savings and eventually lost her home (job loss through illness is a common way to become homeless).

Walking was hard for Sharon, so she rode the bus every morning and returned to Hospitality House as soon as it reopened. On the bus she always sat in the same spot behind the driver, and at the shelter she always sat in the same seat at one of our long dining room tables with the same group of special friends. Wherever she was, inside or out, she always wore a striped khaki stocking cap pulled down around her ears, leaving shrewd brown eyes and a lively expression to clue us in—here was someone who knew the score, who never did and never would get lost in her own problems, harsh as they were, the way some people do. When she wasn’t chatting, she often spent her time working at one of the simple crossword puzzle books she was never without. One day she confided ruefully that, as happens often with MS patients, she was losing her cognitive skills.

“I used to do the Sunday Times puzzle—in ink,” she scowled. “Now I have trouble with these Level 1 puzzles. But I do them to keep what little brain I’ve got left.”

When the bus reached the stop in the Hospitality House parking lot, Sharon and several others got off, while I went on to the stop by the Banner Mountain overpass, there to wait for another bus that would take me back to town, where I’d left my car. It was hot, I needed a bathroom, I was worried about being late, and I couldn’t understand why so many people driving by were staring at me. Probably if I’d been more accustomed to taking the bus, I wouldn’t have felt quite so helpless, but as it was I had to pull myself together and remember that what I’d just experienced was more lastingly important than a few passing inconveniences. I recalled how deeply Utah Phillips regretted the decline of public transportation in the United States, often quoting Joseph Campbell’s remark that all we really want is to be completely human and in each other’s company. And it was true that when I opened the door of my car to get inside, I had a sudden unexpected sense of emptiness and isolation. It occurred to me that we who travel so conveniently and privately have normalized that feeling of isolation, and in that moment it seemed a high price to pay for the privilege of having whatever we think we want, whenever we think we want it.

A lovely sequel to all this is that one evening not long after, in the women’s dorm at the shelter, I noticed that Sharon was missing. The exotic stuffed animals that had animated her bed had also disappeared. When I asked a group of her friends where she was, they fell ominously silent. Finally one blurted, “That’s a secret.” “We’re not supposed to tell,” another frowned. I was about to let them off the hook with some polite phrase I didn’t mean when someone couldn’t help herself.

          “She has a boyfriend,” she whispered.

          “She’s living with him,” someone else said.

          “He took her home with him.”

          “He’s a bus driver.”



September 27, 2016

One of my colleagues at Hospitality House once called our guest Sue the “most authentic person” he’d ever met. When I shared his words with her recently, she smiled doubtfully and murmured something about “all my flaws.” By that time we’d been acquainted for years, but only distantly. She first came to the shelter in 2011, when I was a monitor covering the busy afternoon shift at our Welcome Center in downtown Grass Valley. Her customary outfit of white blouse and gray pants, along with her short gray hair and gray eyes, camouflaged her well in the Center’s gray-walled rooms. She was as quiet and unnoticeable as a fallen leaf on a forest floor. She rarely looked up from her lap, and never met my eyes. For several months the only thing about her that caught my attention was that no matter how tightly we packed into that postage stamp of a welcome center, she always had the air of being completely alone.

Sue has come and gone from the shelter many times since then. When she isn’t staying with us, she lives in an old car that she drives around as long as she has money for gas. At nightfall she pulls into out-of-the-way corners where she hopes the police won’t find her, though they sometimes do.dark-road-with-moon

Our staff has identified several housing opportunities for her, but she hasn’t been interested, except once when she tried sharing a house with three other women. The experiment lasted a week. “I just can’t live with other people.”

On the day I told her about my colleague’s high opinion we were sitting on the front porch at Utah’s Place, squinting into the afternoon sun. It was brutally hot, but we were too wrapped up in conversation to care. This was the first time we’d ever spoken together about anything at all important, and she was being the most authentic person I’d ever met too. Sometimes people will blurt out their life stories whether you ask them to or not. This time I had asked, though with some trepidation, as by then I’d learned a couple of raw facts about Sue that I wasn’t sure she’d want to share. But she did share—eagerly—taking me into her life story with a dignity and depth of sincerity that went straight to my heart.

Twenty-seven years ago Sue got out of prison, having served a total of 12½ years for two separate offenses. She spent seven and a half of those years in solitary confinement, by her own choice. Her first offense was a bank robbery in Seattle, for which she served three and a half years; the second offense was assault, for which she served nine years. She committed the bank robbery in her early twenties; three weeks after she got out on parole, she assaulted her mother and went back in for nine long years.


Sue described her mother, now deceased, as a “very good person with hellish mood swings she couldn’t control.” That seemed a charitable assessment, considering what Sue told me about the ongoing, violent, even life-threatening abuse she suffered. It was typical in middle-class America in the 1950s that her mother, though severely mentally ill, received no diagnosis or treatment. On the contrary, her illness remained a closely kept family secret. One reason for this silence was that Sue’s father, who considered psychiatry complete charlatanism, dreaded the impact on his wife of fearsome therapies like frontal lobotomy and the primitive shock treatment of the time. Not knowing what else to do, Sue said, he hid out in a locked room listening to his short wave radio.

Sue also suffered from another situation considered unmentionable at that time. “I always felt I was in the wrong body. I should have been male. I was raised with the idea that you were supposed to grow up and get married, but that wasn’t me. I wanted adventure. I was engaged once at the end of high school to a very nice boy, but I couldn’t go through with it.”

Instead, she got in a car, by herself, and headed west. “I was scared that first night out,” she said, “so I asked for help. As soon as I did that I felt a blanket of protection fall over me, and I went into a deep sleep from which I awoke completely refreshed. In all the years since, I’ve never felt that fear again and I’ve never been lonely. It’s not possible to be alone.” The experience was the beginning of what she described as the “mildly mystical” sensibility that enables her to perceive benign presences surrounding her at all times. Her description struck me not at all as a suggestion of mental imbalance, but as precisely what she called it: a spiritual awakening.

In Seattle, with no money, she fell in with the wrong crowd and got involved with hard drugs. Her addiction led her to participate in a mad plot to rob a bank, for which she was immediately caught and sent to prison. Paroled three and a half years later, she went back east to her parents’ house, where repressed memories of her violent childhood suddenly came back. “The mind is geared for survival,” she said. “I had blotted out what I couldn’t process. When I had those memories, it was like I was going through a long tunnel.” Her mother’s indifferent denial that anything ever happened triggered Sue’s violent assault. “After I hit her, I called an ambulance, the police, and my parole officer.”

“My past embarrasses me,” Sue said. “I find that because of it I can’t get close to people. I’ve had a life I can’t talk about. Basically I stay by myself. I can’t function—I spent too many years in solitary. I keep secret the fact that I’m homeless, too, because homeless people don’t get treated very well.”

Sue has been homeless for 27 years, minus the one week she made an attempt to live with others. I asked her how she managed to stay in the shelter with 54 others when she couldn’t bear to live with only three. “Sometimes I have no choice,” she admitted. “Either I run out of money for gas or the car breaks down. And besides, I’m getting older and I don’t always feel that well.” Sue is 69. For a long time she has received SSI (Supplemental Security Income), a small benefit for low-income people 65 or older, blind, or disabled. It’s part of the ever-shrinking safety net established to help people in serious need. She hopes someday to settle into subsidized senior housing in Grass Valley, where she can live by herself— though hope isn’t a word that fits her well. “I don’t know what I’m doing here. I don’t see myself living long. It’s okay. I’m ready to get out of this life.”

For a few minutes we sat in silence, finally broken by my fumbling words about places where she could find spiritual support, including at Hospitality House. But mostly I tried to say that many people would consider her company a valuable gift, would find her scrupulous honesty a teaching and her valiant willingness to express her own vulnerability a healing. She turned to me and I saw that she had tears in her eyes, as I did too.statue-with-tear

Sue stays in touch with our social worker at the shelter, and someday, when her name reaches the top of the long, long waiting list, she’ll probably get into a small subsidized apartment. She may choose to spend the rest of her days there alone, but I hope not. I’d like to spend more time with her and be her friend.

Heart on a String

August 16, 2016

This is the conclusion of the story of Hannah and her son Joseph that began in my first post. We left off with Hospitality House staff, in partnership with other county agencies, learning that Hannah, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, did indeed once have a baby named Joseph.

hand on glassBut now he was grown up, a young man in his early thirties living in Nevada County. Mental health staff working for the county arranged a meeting between him and his mother.

A Hollywood ending to this story might have Joseph taking his mother in his arms and dispelling her delusion of the past many years. But as it was, after they were introduced to each other there was little to say. He was polite; she was confused. Hannah could in no way understand that the grown man standing before her had once been the infant she’d been seeking. Joseph had been warned and wasn’t surprised. The meeting was short; they never met again.

Hannah was fragile and gentle and lovely in so many ways, but at the center of her delusion was an unimaginable longing that even Joseph himself couldn’t fulfill. We at Hospitality House wanted to help her, and did help her in many important ways, but it was clear that we could do nothing to resolve the problem that haunted her life. Food, shelter, medical care, psychotherapy, transportation, even a place to live—yes. But ultimate resolution—no. It goes that way sometimes with people who come to the shelter, as it does with everyone one else on the planet. No one can create the path that others must walk, and who even knows to what degree we create it for ourselves? The commitment at the House is to be there reliably for people with what they need when they’re ready and able to receive it.

By the time she met Joseph, Hannah had left the shelter and gone to live at Odyssey House, a small residential care facility in Nevada City http://www.calqualitycare.org/providers/assisted-living/residential-care/profile?id=297001169 . She came back to us several times, though, still looking for her baby. Sometimes, under the impression that he was staying at the shelter, she brought little infant clothes for him to wear. These she would tenderly fold and unfold, running her fingers over them, lingering on the feel of the soft white cotton. When we told her he wasn’t there, she would leave the things anyway, just in case. After a while, we stopped saying he wasn’t there and just took the clothes, seeing how much comfort the acceptance gave her. When I spoke to her in those days, she never mentioned having cancer, as though the illness she’d been treated for—unsuccessfully—had little to do with her. In time she moved out of residential care into her own apartment, where she received help from visiting nurses and mental health case managers. The cancer was advancing and she was in decline. Almost a year after the meeting with Joseph, she passed away.

I think of her at least once a week, usually in the same troubling vision: Hannah taxiing around Grass Valley, her sweet face pressed to the window, her heart, suspended in time, held out on a slowly breaking string.

heart in hand


Hannah and Joseph

July 18, 2016

Hannah arrived by taxi at Utah’s Place seeking her lost infant. She was an older woman, quite short and rather squat, as though she had been stunted in childhood by a heavy load placed on top of her head. Although she kept her eyes focused meekly on the floor and seemed excruciatingly vulnerable, something in her manner commanded attention.
“Is Joseph here?” she whispered. “Have you seen my baby?”
Under no circumstances would Denise, our staff monitor who had greeted Hannah at the door, violate Hospitality House policy by divulging information about a guest in the shelter without his or her permission. In the case of children, anyone under 18 staying at the shelter must be there with an adult, whose permission would be required. Denise began politely to explain this policy, but Hannah interrupted her.
“He’s my baby.”
Denise paused to consider. Hannah, who appeared to be in her late fifties or early sixties, was too old to have an infant. Perhaps she was tired and confused, orIntake Office frightened, as so many people are when they first come to a homeless shelter. Denise ushered her into the small office where interviews with new guests are conducted and offered her a seat.
“Are you hungry?” she asked. “Would you like some coffee and a sandwich?”
In her swivel chair, Hannah’s feet barely touched the floor. Denise took a seat facing her, where she could see Hannah’s face. It was a pretty face, softened with large, liquid brown eyes.
“No thank you, I’m not hungry. I’m looking for Joseph.”
“Tell me about him.”
Hannah told her story. She had lived in Grass Valley previously, but for the past three years had been residing, by her own choice, in a psychiatric hospital in the Bay Area. The day before, without a goodbye, she had packed a small bag and made her way to the bus station, stopping only to collect the money in her savings account, which amounted to almost $400. When she arrived in Grass Valley hours later, she found a cab and took a $350 ride around town, eyes glued to the window in search of baby Joseph. Finally, having run through her money, she asked the taxi driver to take her to a homeless shelter.
With Hannah’s permission, Denise called the Bay Area hospital to let the staff there know where Hannah was and to find out a little more about her background. She learned that Hannah was withdrawn but cooperative, and delusional concerning the existence of a baby named Joseph. No amount of treatment had ever been able to shake her belief in him or diminish the urgency of her desire to find him. In addition, she had diminished mental capacities that, combined with her delusional disorder, severely hampered her ability to function “normally” in society.
Hannah remained for several months at Utah’s Place, where she did surprisingly well. She had a special sweetness about her that endeared her to everyone, and though she continued to seek Joseph, she lost the air of desperation she’d had when she first arrived. The structure of the daily and nightly routine anchoredDoor knob her, and she relished performing simple chores around the shelter like sweeping, dusting, and wiping doorknobs with a disinfectant cloth.
During the morning when the shelter was closed, she walked slowly through town, looking for her baby.

 A Tragedy on Top of a Tragedy 

Western Sierra Medical Clinic http://wsmcmed.org/ is a local medical center that provides extensive on-site medical care for our guests. Hannah visited the clinic mobile medical van when she complained of pain in her breast, and was subsequently sent to the hospital for a mammogram. The news was bad: she had breast cancer and would have to undergo treatment immediately.

Several people have undergone chemotherapy while staying at the shelter: a tragedy on top of a tragedy. Our social worker Jodi Benson, working with the county Behavioral Health Department https://www.mynevadacounty.com/nc/hhsa/bh/Pages/Home.aspx, was able to get Hannah into a small local recovery home for people suffering from mental challenges.


As various agencies collaborated to look more deeply into Hannah’s history, they made a discovery. Thirty years ago she had indeed had a baby, and his name was Joseph. Joseph still lived in Nevada County. When they got hold of him, he agreed to meet his mother, whom he hadn’t seen for many year

Please catch my next post to learn what happened when they met. You can do that by signing up in the right-hand column.

These Stories Describe Us

June 23, 2016

“You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close.”
Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy

The suffering of the poor isn’t subtle; I first encountered it as a very young child. I grew up in Glencoe, Illinois, an affluent suburb north of Chicago on Lake Michigan. My family lived near the depot of the commuter train that ran up from Chicago to Milwaukee. Trains rumbled past our house morning and night, their engines lurching to a restless stop and revving back up again as they departed the station. Most passengers on that line in the 1950s were businessmen going to and from their offices in downtown Chicago, but also, going in opposite directions, were many African-American women coming to work domestic jobs in the suburbs and returning home at night to the city’s South Side.
The sight of those women walking wearily back to the station at the end of the day haunted me. One of them, Ruby, a large, openhearted woman, came to our house once a week. I watched her hoist heavy pails of dirty water around the house, crouch on her knees to scrub the kitchen floor, and wrestle the unwieldy vacuum cleaner step by step up our narrow carpeted stairs. As the day went by, it wasn’t lost on me that her morning smile went down with the waning sun. At nightfall, she trudged to the train with the other women, each on her way home to make her family dinner and care for her own children.
I always wondered why their lives were manifestly so much harder than those of the white women around me. It seemed so unfair. A lifetime of contemplating the reasons for poverty has provided many complex answers to that question, but it hasn’t changed my feelings one whit. My involvement at Hospitality House https://hhshelter.org/, a shelter in a rural county in the Sierra Nevada foothills northeast of Sacramento, California, has been a response.
In 2005 I co-founded Hospitality House along with several other people, including my late husband Utah Phillips.
Utah pic

Utah had been homeless himself for two years after a devastating stint in the Korean War. [link to Utah] He passed away in 2008, never knowing about the permanent shelter building we acquired through a grant from the Housing and Urban Development Department in 2010. We named it in his honor: Utah’s Place. Some people think I became involved with the shelter because of Utah, but that isn’t true. During my time as a volunteer, I got close, and remain close, to many of the homeless guests at Hospitality House.
At the House, I’ve witnessed many people’s struggles; each one, whether won or lost, has been a meaningful story, often raw, about what we humans do and are. My purpose in this blog is to share those stories as respectfully and accurately as I can. I’ll change people’s names and may change genders and specific details to protect confidentiality. My motivation is to honor suffering and redemption, and to hold up a mirror, for however unusual their content may seem, these stories not only touch us, they describe us.
HH House picMy first story, which happened a few years ago, is about Hannah, an older woman who arrived by taxi at Utah’s Place, seeking her lost infant. She was short and squat, as though stunted in childhood by a heavy load placed on top of her head. Although she kept her eyes focused meekly on the floor and seemed excruciatingly vulnerable, something in her manner commanded attention.
“Is Joseph here?” she whispered. “Have you seen my baby?”
I hope you’ll join me next week for the rest of this story. You can receive future posts in your inbox by clicking on the subscribe button on the right.


June 1, 2016

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Your gifts change lives: see how you helped in 2015

March 6, 2016


“The Gift of Song” to Benefit Hospitality House”

October 22, 2015

I was listening to the radio one Friday morning while in my car driving into Nevada City. I like to listen to  Jeri Ann Van Dijk’s show on Friday mornings on KVMR. Every week around 8:30, Jeri Ann invites Joanna Robinson from Hospitality House to talk about what’s going on at Hospitality House and ask for specific “requests”  that are urgently needed for her “guests”. Joanna’s sweet voice always makes me want to do something to help her out. (She never has a request for herself, by the way.)

Benefit Concert for Hospitality House Will Raise Mental Health Awareness

April 12, 2015


Portuguese/Canadian roots singer, song writer, and multi-instrumentalist Awna Teixeira will perform a benefit concert for Hospitality House on Thursday, July 9 at The Open Door (formerly Tomes) at 671 Maltman Drive, Grass Valley (in the Brunswick Basin). The concert will begin at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are available in advance for $15 at BriarPatch Co-Op and online at hhshelter.org; they will be sold at the door for $20.

Teixeira, formerly of the popular Canadian urban roots duo Po’ Girl, is touring solo in support of the March release of her second album, Wild One, which reflects her concern with the tragedy of mental illness. She calls the international tour her “Blue Heart on Your Sleeve Tour,” named after a song on the album written for her grandmother.HH_benefitconcert_July2015

Partly, the purpose of the tour is to raise awareness of mental illness. Teixeira has been supporting mental health organizations in the countries she tours by donating proceeds from ticket sales and sales of blue heart-shaped patches that may be worn or displayed in solidarity with those who suffer from mental and emotional challenges.

Teixeira’s wish, she says, is “to break down the barriers and social stigmas of mental illness and learn how to take care of each other and ourselves. All of these songs are very personal… [a]bout people I have loved and lost, about learning to trust my true voice, about learning to find my wild again, and about my own struggle coming to terms with depression and trying to find my peace with it.”

This year Hospitality House celebrates its tenth anniversary operating as the only emergency homeless shelter in Nevada County. In addition to providing shelter, food, clothing, and access to medical care, the shelter also runs a housing program that since 2013 has placed 262 homeless Nevada County residents (including 78 children) into permanent homes of their own.

The Nevada County Behavioral Health Department sponsors an onsite psychotherapist at the shelter to provide care for the many guests who suffer from mental illness. The shelter also partners closely with Western Sierra Medical Clinic to provide ongoing managed health care.

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Panhandlers, Vagrants and Transients

August 21, 2014


Challenging Labels

Challenging labels 1

In September, the Nevada County Board of Supervisors and the Grass Valley City Council will have to respond to the civil grand jury’s June report, “Panhandlers, vagrants and transients in a neighborhood near you?”

But well before that response was due, the language used in the report drew criticism.

The report used the phrase “panhandlers, vagrants and transients” so frequently the authors coined an acronym — PVT. The term appears 38 times in the 11-page report.

A number of individuals interviewed for this article said they preferred to be called “houseless” or “displaced residents.” Others think “homeless” is more or less the right word. But the grand jury’s term of “PVT” generated strong emotional responses for some.

Days after that report was released, Hospitality House hosted a healing workshop for some of its residents. As part of the nonprofit’s mission to shelter Nevada County’s homeless and help them find housing, the workshop was an effort to help participants address some of the root causes of homelessness.

“It’s heartbreaking, really. It doesn’t surprise me, but at the same time, it’s very disheartening. There’s obviously no compassion, none whatsoever. It’s a lazy mind, and it’s discrimination.” Challenging labels 2
a homeless resident of Nevada City

“We’re trying to empower them to help them to heal, but you can imagine what it must feel like to be a homeless person when a report such as the one (the grand jury) wrote was released,” said Cindy Maple, executive director at Hospitality House. “It was really hurtful to them.”

Hospitality House sometimes uses poster-board and markers as tools in those workshops. The idea, Maple said, is to help its clients rethink how they see themselves, using “power words.” Several participants focused on the grand jury’s acronym, PVT.

“We were sending messages back to the community as a healing exercise, and they were so meaningful that we took pictures,” Maple said.

Robert Marquardt is a homeless veteran of the United States Army. He made a sign saying “I am not a PVT. I’m just residentially challenged.”

Marquardt worked in security for more than 15 years, and later found work as a trucker. He’s currently unemployed, but looking for work and making use of the services Hospitality House provides.

He said he doesn’t want to be called a PVT.

“It does offend me,” Marquardt said. “I’m not a panhandler. I’ve never stood on a corner with a street sign begging for money.

“I’m out there trying. It’s not like I’m sitting back on my butt doing nothing. I’m trying to get something done, and to be lumped in with people who don’t want to do anything is just frustrating,” he said.

“I don’t know who’s on the grand jury, but I’m sure that they’ve never actually gotten out and talked to people who are homeless,” Marquardt said.

Laurie, another Hospitality House resident who asked to have her last name omitted, criticized the lack of evidence in the grand jury report’s list of facts.

“I just don’t appreciate that the grand jury is assuming and relying on … numbers that are maybe, not exaggerated, but guessed at,” Laurie said. “They don’t have hard facts that the homeless are actually part of that problem.

“I think the grand jury went a little over the line in trying to describe this problem, quantify it and pin it down,” she added.

Tim Robison, another Hospitality House client, said he was outraged at the grand jury’s choice in language. In response, Robison made a sign saying, “P.V.T. — It wasn’t me.” He’s a contractor, and he used to run his own business. Robison said he owned a home in Roseville, but lost it in a recent divorce. That’s how he ended up at Hospitality House.

“There’s people in here that are school teachers that are out of work. There’s people in here that are nurses that are out of work. I’ve seen a few bad apples. That’s not anybody in here, but we’re being classified with those people, too,” Robison said.

Similar sentiments were expressed at a free weekly lunch in Pioneer Park, provided by Sierra Roots.

“It’s heartbreaking, really,” said Ray, a homeless resident of Nevada City who asked to be identified by first name only. “It doesn’t surprise me, but at the same time, it’s very disheartening. There’s obviously no compassion, none whatsoever. It’s a lazy mind, and it’s discrimination.”

Most of the homeless people interviewed for this story agreed that the individuals who make up Nevada County’s homeless population should not be lumped into a single category.Challenging labels 3

And members of the Nevada County Civil grand jury might agree with that.

“The Nevada County grand jury recognizes that any discussion of the homeless problem is politically challenging. There is a fine line between providing needed services to a deserving population and enabling or encouraging the less desirable element,” members of the grand jury wrote.

But many of the individuals with behavioral issues actually have homes, according to Michael Lucas Butler, and most homeless people wouldn’t even understand the term “PVT.”

Butler lives in unincorporated Nevada County, where he camps with the property owner’s permission. He moved here in 1993, and has been without permanent housing since 2003.

Butler sees the grand jury’s report on PVTs as a mild embarrassment, but said there’s a silver lining. He hopes it gives them a reason to re-examine their work, and possibly revisit this issue at a later date.

“Now that they’ve made themselves look a little foolish, this gives them the opportunity to come up and shine like a star,” Butler said.

Among the homeless individuals interviewed for this report, there was a consensus that the solution to problems associated with the homeless community would involve more access to mental health services.

They also tend to agree that there are dangerous, obnoxious or “less desirable” elements within the homeless community that do cause serious problems.

But several homeless individuals interviewed also stated that this is a national issue. It’s much worse outside of Nevada County, they said, and the extent of the problem locally may have been exaggerated.

“I know what panhandling means, and I’ve seen very little of it here,” said Laurie at Hospitality House. “What’s happening here is not as big a problem as I’ve seen recently in other places.”

To contact Staff Writer Dave Brooksher, email dbrooksher [at] theunion [dot] com or call 530-477-4230.