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Group has big plans for homeless

Sierra Roots to seek federal funds for tiny homes


Karen Newell Young

Nevada City Advocate

After years of working to address the lack of housing for the chronically homeless, Sierra Roots will announce a strategic plan in the next few weeks that will include securing a low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, enabling it to purchase land for a village of tiny homes. 

“Sierra Roots is on the threshold of major growth,” said Janice O’Brien, the president of Sierra Roots, one of its founders and one of the founders of Hospitality House. She has been volunteering to help the homeless population for 10 years.

“We see ourselves moving forward in a highly focused way. We want to create affordable housing for homeless people that provides safety, privacy and independence — that is the next stage we’re calling Housing First,” O’brien said.

The organization is eyeing property that could accommodate tiny homes with a low-interest, long-term loan from the Department of Agriculture. The group is expecting to submit a proposal for the loan at the end of April.

The organization recently hired a new executive director, Paul Cogley, who is working with Gary Quehl, co-founder of the Center for Nonprofit Leadership. He is advising the organization and its board of directors in developing the next steps to create affordable housing in Nevada City for those who don’t have a place to call home.

Critical to the next phase is outlining a strategic plan, fund development efforts and working to purchase land.

It is a model that has worked in other locations in the nation.

In 2001, a group of homeless people in Portland, Oregon set up a campsite under a downtown bridge. The city didn’t have enough shelter space to accommodate its homeless population, and as the camp attracted more and more people, authorities began regular sweeps, clearing away tents and sleeping bags — which inevitably cropped right back up.

Then something less predictable happened. A group of community leaders and activists teamed up with those living at the camp and hatched a plan: make the tent village permanent by developing a community of small homes for homeless people.

Today, “Dignity Village” provides shelter to about 65 people and operates as a self-governing community.

Closer to home, Cogley calls the Sierra Roots approach “community building” because it works one-on-one to address housing, medical assistance and other needs of folks who live outside with no place to call home.

“Community building means that participants become part of a larger group who become independent and help themselves,” he said. “It’s not a handout but a hand up.”

“All of us together are participants in the same program of healthy community building that aims to leave no one out in the cold and from which everyone benefits,” he added.

In 2016, Cogley returned to Nevada City where he was city planner from 1997 to 2004. He became interested in affordable housing issues and moved to New York to become executive director of Churches United Corp., whose mission was to “discover new possibilities for housing, especially for those most in need. He worked both ends of the affordable housing issue on project development as well as community involvement.

When he returned to Nevada City in 2016, Cogley heard O’Brien speak about Sierra Roots and its mission. He knew he wanted to become involved and joined the group as a volunteer. He was hired as executive director last December.

The hiring was aimed at relieving O’Brien of many administrative tasks so that she could focus on one-on-one relationships, community building and advocacy — a commitment and special skills she has repeatedly demonstrated over the years, Cogley said.

Sierra Roots has been working with the long-term homeless people since 2010, after a woman froze to death on a cold winter night. Its outreach involves developing a trusting relationship necessary for transitioning into affordable housing and/or needed treatment. 

The next phase for the organization is called “Housing First,” which means that housing in a warm, safe and secure place with a caring community is self-treatment for these individuals who have been alienated from family and society sometimes for years. 

“Community building is our big reason for being,” O’Brien said. “It’s helping them become integrated into the community and helping them help themselves for what works best” to meet their needs.”

About the photos: This page: 

Paul Cogley, new executive director, Sierra Roots. 

Photo by Karen Newell Young

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A planning session involving potential residents for a small village that Sierra Roots is planning. Left to right are Janice O’Brien, president of Sierra Roots, Jo Garst (one of the architects), Carla Swanson, Bill Kerr, unknown participant, Matthew Courture, and Susan Davis.

submitted Photo