Sierra Roots has committed to the “HOUSING FIRST” approach to end homelessness in our community. We can offer food, clothes, and help in a number of other ways, but until we can get permanent housing for our homeless people here, we can't really help them get out of homelessness. The micro-house Village is our answer to providing permanent, supportive housing for these folks.

NATIONAL ALLIANCE TO END HOMELESSNESS SOLUTIONS BRIEF – NOVEMBER 27, 2006“HOUSING FIRST” is an approach that centers on providing homeless people with housing quickly, and then providing services as needed. What a differentiates a HOUSING FIRST approach from other strategies is that there is an immediate and primary focus on helping individuals and families quickly access and sustain permanent housing. This approach has the benefit of being consistent with what most people experiencing homelessness want and seek help to achieve. HOUSING FIRST programs share critical elements:

  •  There is a focus on helping individuals and families access and sustain rental housing as quickly as possible and the housing is not time-limited;
  • A variety of services are delivered primarily following a housing placement to promote housing stability and individual well-being;
  •  Such services are time-limited or long-term depending upon individual need; Housing is not contingent on compliance with services – instead, participant must comply with a standard lease agreement and are provided with the services that are necessary to help them do so successfully.

A HOUSING FIRST approach rests on the belief that helping people access and sustain permanent, affordable housing should be the central goal of our work with people experiencing homelessness. By providing housing assistance, case management and supportive services responsive to individual or family needs ( time-limited or long-term) after an individual or family is housed, communities can significantly reduce the time people experience homelessness and prevent further episodes of homelessness. A central tenet of the HOUSING FIRST approach is that social services to enhance individual and family well-being can be more effective when people are in their own home. While there are a variety of program models, all typically include a separate and private home or apartment for each person that is clean, close to services and has easy access.

HOUSING FIRST, which is distinct and separate from “rapid rehousing” is a relatively recent innovation in human service programs and social policy regarding treatment of homeless individuals and is an alternative to a system of emergency shelter/transitional housing progressions. Rather than moving a homeless individual through different “levels” of housing, whereby each level moves them closer to “independent housing” (for example: from the streets to a public shelter, and from a public shelter to a transitional housing program, and from there to their own apartment in the community).

HOUSING FIRST moves the homeless individual or household immediately from the streets or homeless shelters into their own apartments. HOUSING FIRST approaches are based on the concept that a homeless individual or household's first and primary need is to obtain stable housing, and that other issues that may affect the household can and should be addressed once housing is obtained. In contrast, many other programs operate from a model of “housing readiness” - that is, that an individual or household must address other issues that may have led to the episode of homelessness prior to entering housing.

Ruben's Story by Janice O'Brien

This is only one of many stories showing how difficult it is to get into rehab and the many hurdles to be crossed even for a very determined person who happens to be homeless. 

I got a call from our Secretary, Susan Molloy, giving me the phone number of someone who needs help with transportation to Behavioral Health the next day.  I called the number and learned that the caller, Ruben, was from Sparks, Nevada and had an appointment with the county worker, Jan Sprier, who would help him get into alcohol rehab. I promised to pick him up the next day and take him to the county office.

We arrive at the office at 1:00 p.m. and Ruben realizes he has left his phone charging at Pioneer Park. I hurry back to Pioneer Park to retrieve it for him hoping it hasn't been picked up by some other homeless person. I find it and take it back to him. He is so happy – without his phone, he's lost. We wait and wait. At 2:15 p.m. he is finally called in. I wait for him because he has no transportation back to Brunswick where he wants to stay at Hospitality House for the night. 

 It is so hard to stay sober on the streets. He is not eligible to go to CORE because he has no money and the county can only pay for 14 days. He knows he has a serious alcohol addiction and needs 10 to 12 months in rehab.  He wants desperately to get well. 

Ruben emerges from the inner office with a huge smile on his face. He is so happy. Jan Sprier phoned many alcohol and drug rehab facilities around the state to find him a bed. She has found an opening for him at the Redwood Gospel Mission in Santa Rosa. He's given an application that he is to fill out and fax to them before morning. 

He hoped to find help at Hospitality House. By now it is 3:00 p.m. but sign-in happens at 4:00 p.m.  Ruben had told me how he got to Nevada City. A sober friend of his in Nevada told him about Progress House in Nevada City.  (This is the Bost House that the county is set to renovate and begin operating as an alcohol/drug and mental health facility in March.)  It used to be a rehab house and his friend had gone there and did very well.  He felt sure that Ruben who was so motivated to get well would also do very well there. So, they both hitchhiked to Nevada City, went to Progress House and found it all boarded up. They were so disappointed but Ruben was determined to find a way and did not give up. 

He called Behavioral Health and set up an appointment. The problem was, Ruben didn't know where the office was nor how he would get there. That's when he met local homeless folks who told him to call me. He had tried to stay at Hospitality House the week before and was refused because he had been drinking. Since he had not had anything to drink that day, he was confident he would be able to stay there that night.

After leaving Ruben at Hospitality House, I called to get the bus schedule for Colfax to Santa Rosa.  The bus would leave Colfax at 8:00 a.m.  I had to get in touch with Ruben to tell him that I would need to pick him up at 7:00 a.m. I called Hospitality House only to find that he was not there. He had been refused again. This time because he was from out of county and out of state.

Where would he be? On the streets overnight would be dangerous for him. After several tries, I finally contacted him by phone. He would be ready to go by 7:00 in the morning. I worried about him all night and just prayed he would be able to stay sober and be ready to go in the morning.

Sure enough, there stood Ruben in front of Safeway in Brunswick, ready and waiting. He kept saying, “I'm so happy. I'm so happy”. The police had come around early in the morning and were going to move him on until he showed them the card I had given him from Sierra Roots. They recognized that he was getting the ride to Colfax and left him alone. 

But that's not the end of the story. Once on the bus to Santa Rosa, Ruben remembered he was to fax the application the night before. He called the Mission and they said that if they didn't receive the application, they might not be able to receive him. He called me in desperation. (Thank God, he had his phone). I told him he had a lay-over in Oakland and he might be able to fax it from there. When he arrived in Oakland, he had a hard time finding a place to fax it – I prayed, he searched, and finally found a place just in time – faxed it and got back on the bus just in time for the last leg of the journey. 

But that's not the end of the story either. Ruben had been told by someone that if he called ahead of time, there would be someone at the bus stop in Santa Rosa to meet him and take him to the mission. He called and called but couldn't get in touch with anyone. When Ruben got to Santa Rosa, no one was there to meet him and he had no idea where the Mission was. He texted me that he was going under a bridge and spend the night. He was so tired of all the disappointments of the day. Nothing seemed to be turning out for him. I encouraged him not to give up. He had come so far and was so determined. I told him to keep phoning over and over again, and I too would do the same. 

Finally, a young resident answered and told me they don't pick people up – there wasn't anyone there to go get Ruben. This young man was confused -  thinking Ruben was still at the Oakland bus stop. Finally, when he realized that Ruben was at the Santa Rosa bus stop, he was able to call Ruben and tell him how to walk about five blocks to the Mission. Ruben got to the Mission, texted me that they were very kind to him, took him in, gave him a bunk, and a hot meal.

He would never forget Sierra Roots and he was so happy. We can only hope that his rehab goes well and good things come to Rubin in the future.



There is little affordable housing for our veterans, elderly, college students or homeless here in Nevada county. This is a fact! Even with a voucher for housing, veterans find nothing is available for them. A solution such as a micro-house supportive community would be a very viable solution, yet we still have objections. Here are the typical objections observed:

*     If you set up a micro house village, you would draw all kinds of other homeless individuals to this area. We don't want to draw more homeless people here - “if you build it, they will come.”

The truth is most homeless people stay in the area they call home – where they or their families were born, went to school, have friends and know the area. They do not move from place to place as people think. Most of the homeless in our area are 4th or 5th generation Nevada County people. They have been here since childhood and know this as their home – they just don't have a home they can afford having been out of a job or without a stable address for several years.

*     “I have to work for a living and I pay my taxes and pay rent. It would be nice for me to be given a free house with no requirements of paying rent or work. Building these micro houses and setting these homeless “freeloaders” up with housing and food etc. is just giving them a free ride. They should just get out and get a job like the rest of us.”

All residents of the Village will be required to pay rent – 30% of their income, which is what most financial counselors suggest be the percentage of income to be used for housing. Those who have no income will be asked to pay rent through “sweat equity” until they are able to find a job or get SSI or disability funding. Many of the chronically homeless people are disabled and mentally unstable as a result of living in uninhabitable living situations for years. According to “Housing First” results (see definition below), individuals will become responsible and productive in the community when they have a lockable and livable space for privacy and security. Also, all residents will invest in the sustainability and beauty of the village by creating and providing cottage industries that will support themselves and the village.

“Housing First” is the mandate of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, an approach that prioritizes permanent supportive housing as quickly as possible to people experiencing homelessness, and then providing voluntary supportive services as needed. This approach respects client choice in both housing selection and in service participation.

*     Will this be permanent housing? Are we not then enabling them to continue to be homeless instead of empowering them to transition into more permanent housing in the larger community?

Yes, this will be permanent housing for those who want to live in the supportive community. They will then not be homeless, they will be working and paying rent for their home. This will be empowering them to become responsible and productive members of the community. Because they will have an address and a way to clean up and get assistance with resumes, they will be able to look for and secure jobs outside the village. Those who are too disabled to work a steady job, will be able to work within the village up to 10 - 20 hours a week, in cottage industries set up in the Village.

*     I don’t want “those people” in my neighborhood. Not in my back yard, please. (NIMBY) My property values will decrease.

We believe that having a well managed, beautiful, and sustainable community will create more benefits than difficulties. There will be less fire danger, more cleanliness in the community, greater health and more labor ready opportunities for the community. “Those people” are our neighbors and citizens.

*     Is the “Tiny House” Village just going to be a “K Mart” version of Habitat for Humanity?

Tiny House Villages are being established around the country as a viable, well planned and beautiful housing solution such as “Housing First” promotes. Cottage housing, such as the Quinn Cottages in Sacramento have been successful for the last 20 years and though the homes are much less expensive and smaller than those built by Habitat for Humanity, they are elegant, beautiful and creative and hold their value.

*      Why would there be political opposition to such a plan?

We haven't really heard the reasons why the city and county leaders here hesitate to get behind this idea of providing land and support for such a village. We must present all the plans and details of management of such a village and let the political leaders learn that to house the homeless individuals here will save them more money than they're spending now by not providing housing for these people. We are not asking for money from the county or the cities to do this. We will be presenting these arguments to both City Councils and the Board of Supervisors in the fall.



It's time for this community to make good on our promises to provide supportive community housing for those people in our town who are still without a place to call their own.  There is much talk about the fire danger those living in the parks, woods and under the bridges present to this community.  We are all aware of the unsightly camps and the unhealthy living conditions right here in Grass Valley and Nevada City caused by some inconsiderate and illegal campers. This is a "third world country" situation right here in our community that needs to be addressed!

Sierra Roots has put together a very well planned solution that we will propose to community leaders very soon.  Using the guidelines offered in Andrew Heben's book, Tent City Urbanism - From Self-Organized Camps to Tiny House Villages, we are ready to move forward as soon as we locate a suitable piece of land that can be purchased, donated to us through the Land Trust or an individual, leased, or leased to buy. 

First Stage: We are looking for 3-5 acres close to town or on a bus line. As a transitional stage, we will immediately set up weather-proof tents, port-o-potties, waste management services, and a water truck as a temporary sanctuary for any of those who are now living in the woods, parks, and under the bridges of Nevada City and Grass Valley.  This will be the first stage of providing for some dignity, health, safety and a step up from homelessness that Sierra Roots volunteers are willing to provide.  We will then begin building a Community Center that will serve the Village and begin interviewing those who want to make the Village their home.  We would like to have this in place before winter sets in.

At present we are working with a team of young and knowledgeable architects and city planners who are very enthused about planning, designing and building a supportive community micro house village that could house up to 30 to 60 of our homeless people here in Nevada County. And we are recruiting a Project Manager to oversee this project as soon as possible.  

2nd Stage: Through the winter, we will continue to serve hot, nutritious meals and begin to establish the management of the Village. A Village Council made up of residents and Sierra Roots leaders and volunteers will be elected.   There will be mandatory weekly meetings of all residents to ensure that all residents and volunteers have a voice and investment in the running of the Village.  The goal is that the Village become self-managed and sustainable.  

3rd Stage: When the winter weather begins to clear, we will begin to build the micro- houses.  Residents will be able to participate in designing and building their own homes.  Using the template of Opportunity Village in Eugene, Oregon and Hope Village in San Luis Obispo, and so many others that are beginning to crop up throughout the country, we know this will be a very well planned and well managed supportive community housing for our homeless people.  The village will also serve to keep the community at large safer and healthier.  It will also save the county and cities more money than they can imagine. Look for more information in the August newsletter or call Janice O'Brien at 265-5403 if you have questions, or want to help us. If you are not receiving our monthly newsletters, please send us your email via info@sierraroots.org.


We have had several complaints from our homeless friends, of poor treatment at the Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital Emergency Department recently.  On May 24th Sierra Roots’ board members met with those responsible for the ED services, to advocate for more sensitive and kinder treatment of our most vulnerable population. Also attending was one of our homeless people, who has been a patient at the ED several times. We met with Dr. Brian Evans, Chief Medical Officer, nurses Karin Zink, Caroline Hart, and Stephanie Kreiter, outreach coordinator.

Our meeting was very cordial and collaborative.  We expressed the reports of unkind treatment of several of our homeless who have come to the ED by themselves.  Our homeless disabled veteran - Matthew Coulter- told them about how some of the nurses talk about the homeless persons in degrading ways within earshot of that person.  And then sometimes when the homeless person is released, they might be told to go home and take a hot bath, and rest, without being sensitive to the fact that they have no home to go back to where they can recuperate.  

Sierra Roots offered to be on call for homeless individuals who need advocacy and care after the visit.  Sierra Roots is training advocates to take individuals to the ED, stay with them during their treatment, and then return them to their campsite. Advocates will assist the homeless individual find a primary care physician and medical insurance. We asked the hospital directors we met with to live up to the “kindness” motto that they have taken to be their mission.  And we now know who to contact when and if we or our homeless people have any more negative experiences in the emergency department at the hospital.

Update: Janice just had a negative unkind experience when taken to the ED on Thursday, June 2nd. A very unfriendly and negative nurse ignored her most of the time - efficient but impatient.  She will be contacting the head nurse of the ED department, as we discussed at the joint meeting.



As in years past, serious fire dangers and health issues are in our back yard once again.  We're barely into fire season and already two fires are thought to have been started by homeless people.  With the warmer weather comes more people out and about and cities, especially those dependent on tourism, don't want their homeless problem to be seen.  Their trash and their very presence is a nuisance to people hiking their trails or visiting their towns.

City Councils of both Nevada City and Grass Valley want the homeless campers in the forests and those hidden among the buildings to clean up their camps.  Sierra Roots and Divine Spark , working with the Nevada City Police Department will be informing our homeless friends of the plans to clean up by the end of June. The camps on Sugar Loaf are especially targeted because the city of Nevada City will soon be building trails there.  All campers will be given time to clean up their camps before the police come.  If personal things are put safely into a tent and everything else around the camp is cleared out, the police will not disturb their personal things. Some campers may be asked to move their tent and belongings to a less visible place so they won't be seen. Some homeless people will cooperate and clean the area but many will choose to leave everything and move to a new space probably deeper into the forest.

But the homeless problems persist.  Year after year the law enforcement use the same tired tactics as the previous year and the homeless people move from place to place with no real solution. 

This only points out the critical need to address this situation with a sustainable solution, stop the merry-go-round, and direct our energy toward something that has proven to work.  Communities around the western states have been turning to tiny house villages for part of the solution to homelessness. Tiny house villages have been springing up in towns across the country, (Portland, Olympia, San Luis Obispo, Santa Rosa, Eugene, Madison, Austin) demonstrating the feasibility of this model.  (for more information, visit www.thevillagecollaborative.org)

Sierra Roots is formulating plans for a similar self-governing tiny house village with communal kitchens and bath rooms but small individual sleeping units. It will be financed by private donors, grants, rent from the residents, and cottage industries that the residents will operate.  It will be governed by the residents, sustainable, and self-supporting.

Without a comprehensive plan for dealing with homelessness and the urgent need for more affordable housing, Nevada County's homeless problem will likely continue to grow in the future and we will continue to throw money at solutions that go nowhere.  We need your support to create a real and lasting solution for our chronically homeless community in Nevada City.

Janice O'Brien and Board of Sierra Roots



A Successful Story

Opportunity Village in Eugene, Oregon is a success story that could be repeated in our community.

In the past two years, Opportunity Village in Eugene, Oregon has provided transitional tiny houses for 85 homeless people, helping them to move out of homelessness. Evan, a disabled Air Force veteran, was homeless and living on the streets. Thanks to the stability and support atOpportunity Village, he now has veterans’ benefits and is living in an apartment near downtown Eugene.

In a recent survey conducted by the University of Oregon:

* 92% of residents reported that living in Opportunity Village gave them a sense of community

* 80% reported that living at Opportunity Village made them feel more independent

* Neighboring residents and businesses perceive the neighborhood surrounding Opportunity Village as safe, and are supportive of the program

Opportunity Village is cost-effective with operational costs only $3 per night per person. Residents pay $1 per night per person.

  • Funds needed to operate Opportunity Village for the coming year: $35,000.

For more information about Opportunity Village, check out their website:


Recommended reading: Tent City Urbanism by Andrew Heben

Sierra Roots: Food integrity in Nevada County

When many people think of a “soup kitchen” or a place that feeds the hungry, often they envision a scene similar to the one from the 1968 film “Oliver,” where a lumpy, gray porridge is being served to orphans.

When Sierra Roots started three years ago in Nevada County, the volunteers had an entirely different vision. They believed that healthy food fosters a healthy community. The organizers of Sierra Roots wanted to ensure that the population of those who are most in need in Nevada County could have access to, not just food, but to healthy and wholesome food.

Sierra Roots is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with a mission to stay “dedicated to creating a strategic infrastructure that will offer sustainable solutions to local homelessness, while supporting (Nevada County’s)farmers, economy, and community.” They are just one of the many useful food organizations in Nevada County who are dedicated to feeding the hungry in our community. But they are doing it in a new and innovative way. Anyone is welcome and they provide a meal that is organic and gluten-free, with several vegetarian and vegan options. They are careful to use separate dishes for meat and to make sure that there are options for people with allergies to soy, nuts or dairy. Sierra Roots is on the cutting edge of food distribution.

Every Thursday, Sierra Roots serves an organic meal to the public, with the help of the Gold Country Gleaners and our local farmers and gardeners. Usually, there are about 40 people who receive food, including a handful of small children. For many in attendance, this offering is the only organic meal available to eat all week. For some, it is the only meal that includes fresh, raw, organic fruits and vegetables that they will eat for an entire month.

“This meal rocks,” a food recipient named Rick exclaimed enthusiastically. “I feel like I’m eating at the Briar Patch or Whole Foods,” he remarked, referring to grocery stores known for their selection of high-quality, fresh and organic products. Rick has lived in Nevada County for the past five years.

"Sierra Roots is helping to combat the myriad of problems associated with poverty and malnutrition. When a community commits to providing healthy food for those who most need it, the community benefits exponentially."

Sierra Roots’ progressive and thoughtful approach to serving healthy food to those in need may be helping our community in more ways than one. In 2004, The American Society for Clinical Nutrition published a groundbreaking article about the correlations between poverty, obesity and malnutrition. The article explained that “many health disparities in the United States are linked to inequalities in education and income.” It provided evidence to support the fact that “the highest rates of obesity and malnutrition occur among population groups with the highest poverty rates.” The article linked studies about food insecurity, malnutrition and diets that are associated with lower food expenditures. It explained that, because foods that are high in fat and sugar often cost less than their more nutritious counterparts, they frequently become the choices of those requiring assistance for their food needs.

A lack of available nutrition for our most disenfranchised populations creates a negative feedback loop for local communities. When people don’t have access to healthy food for extended periods of time, they are often in need of other resources such as health care, mental health services, disability services and other services that could be reduced or mitigated by a healthful diet.

Sierra Roots is helping to combat the myriad of problems associated with poverty and malnutrition. When a community commits to providing healthy food for those who most need it, the community benefits exponentially.

Bill Kerr, a board member for Sierra Roots, came to a recent Thursday meal to support the volunteers.

“This work is important,” he said. “It is very important to a community of disenfranchised people.”

He explained that, ultimately, Sierra Roots would like to have a co-operative farm that could provide a place for our homeless and at-risk population to live and work. Until then, Sierra Roots is feeding the hungry with a comprehensive, whole-foods approach to nutrition. Sierra Roots is serving delicious and nutritious meals and they are well received.

If you would like to learn more or volunteer with Sierra Roots, you can find more information at www.sierraroots.org.

Hilary Hodge is a freelance writer living in Nevada County. She has written for EatDrinkBetter.comand for Mother Earth News Magazine.

Asked and Answered

Sierra Roots is actively assisting our homeless folks to find jobs, to provide transportation to doctors’ appointments, or job interviews. A few days ago, we posted this message on our Facebook page, as well as on the Nevada County Peeps Facebook site:

“We have a homeless man that Sierra Roots, is working with to help get him back on his feet. He is looking for a men’s bike to use to get to work. He has no means of transportation, but is serious about finding work. With some help from Sierra Roots and our citizens, we can make this a reality. He just delivered 20 of his resumes in Grass Valley and Nevada City – walking. Sierra Roots would like to find a men’s bicycle for him, so that he’ll have some transportation. Please let us know if you can help. Anyone with a man’s bike out there to help transform a life?”

Within 24 hours, Tamara Hiatt responded that she had a bike to give.  She delivered it to our Sierra Roots Board Vice President Pauli Halstead, who washed it up, filled the tires, and is going to deliver it to our young man today.

Thank you Tamara for your generous heart, and for being part of this compassionate and kind community.

Earth Day

Sierra Roots was very well received at Sierra College during the Earth Day celebration. They would love us to come back next year. I met so many very caring people who had no idea about the Gratitude Bowls. Lorraine, our newest member, talked to several organizations that would like more information about Sierra Roots. Water bottles advertising the  four restaurants currently providing Gratitude Bowls were passed out to many thirsty folks. It was a great day.

Kathy Waldron, Council Member

Sierra Roots