ROSEVILLE, Calif. — California has the nation’s largest homeless population, and that's known because, every year, the federal government requires local communities to go out on a single night and count the number of people experiencing homelessness.
The count ranges from those living on the streets and in vehicles to folks staying in shelters. In the end, those communities receive federal dollars for homeless services. It’s called a Point in Time Count.
All across the nation, that count happened overnight Wednesday into Thursday.
Much is often said about Sacramento County’s population of some 9,300 people, according to last year’s count, but the foothill communities are facing this challenge too.
32-year-old Marissa Wittrien and her nearly-6-year-old daughter are experiencing homelessness in Roseville.
Asked to characterize how she thinks many people picture homelessness, she said, “(they’re) probably thinking, ‘What did they do to get themselves here?’ It's probably, like, pushing fault on to whoever is experiencing homelessness.”
She knows firsthand the problem with that stereotype, however.
“I wish I could change their view on what homelessness looks like, because it's not what people always want to think it is,” Wittrien said. “For me, it's not drugs. It's not alcohol. I didn't choose this. Where do I fit into that thinking?”
Severely injured during the birth of her daughter in the Bay Area nearly six years ago, Wittrien fought to get on disability after a painful surgery and ongoing complications stemming from the delivery. Using retroactive disability benefits, she bought a fifth-wheel trailer, and – along with her mother, her young daughter and the girl's father (Wittrien's fiancé) - bounced around temporary housing situations until her mom moved to Placer County.
“I ended up having to switch gears and put my trailer into storage and - my mom not having any room for us - this is where we ended up,” she said. “It’s kind of spiraled from there…It has just been barrier after barrier.”
For the last few months, Wittrien and her daughter have been staying at the Gathering Inn, which provides shelter and services to people experiencing homelessness in Placer County. Wittrien's fiancé is living with family to stay close to work. They hope to be able to find housing together soon.
Rolande Tellier is COO at the Gathering Inn.
“When folks come in to stay with us, they go through an intake process with a case manager - everyone's assigned case manager - and they develop a case plan based on their needs and where they're at that point in their life,” Tellier said. “We help them get any legal documents ready, work on them with life skills, help them with budgeting, financial management, get a bank account, help them find employment and do everything we can to get them ready to move into their own housing and be successful once they move into their housing.”
But, she points out, housing is scarce—and expensive.
“A lot of our folks are on permanent disability living on Social Security,” Tellier said. “When your income only allows for $500 in rent, it's very difficult to find those places to house them.”
Wittrien has experienced this.
“Even with disability, I wasn't making two-and-a-half times the rent. Even for the low-income, what's considered affordable (rentals),” she said. “I'm on the list for a voucher, but I don't know when that's going to open. That's all the way up in Yuba. That's because that was the only open waitlist.”
The numbers reflect that challenge. Last year, 750 people were counted as experiencing homelessness in Placer County, and in Nevada County, 527 people.
Asked if she anticipates the numbers going up, Tellier said, “Unfortunately, it typically rises every year. So it just depends on by how much.”
She reiterated Wittrien’s point, that many people experiencing homelessness find themselves in these situations because of life circumstances.
“They lost their job because of COVID or because their kid was sick, and they had to take too much time off. And then they're living in their car and it's too cold out,” Tellier said. “Yes, there is a problem with drugs and alcohol. I'm not going to sugarcoat that. But I think - by and large - the population at large is not to be afraid of. They just need help.”
She said she'd like to see increased resources for - and access to - mental health services.
"A lot of our folks slip through the cracks with that. The county does a great job, but they're very under-resourced as well, so they have to prioritize folks with the highest need," Tellier said. "When we have someone that comes into our program and they want to be here and they do need those services to be successful, (I feel) that we're in a good position to offer mental health services at an early intervention or prevention aspect, then, you know, before it gets too far gone."
Wittrien pointed out that the Gathering Inn does not allow people use drugs or alcohol – and it does not tolerate theft. She said she wanted to underscore the fact that just because someone is experiencing homelessness doesn’t mean they’re a danger to the neighborhood.
“You've got to have an open mind and be able to hear someone's story and have it maybe change your worldview a little bit,” she said. “What if they ended up here? They would want help, too.”
52-year-old Carlo Cabrera shared his story with ABC10 too. After the death of his mom in 2020 and a move from the Philippines, Cabrera said he fell in with some bad friends and started using drugs. After a heart failure in Nov. 2021, he was introduced to the Gathering Inn.
“If I knew this place, like, three years ago, like in 2020, I would be able to get back on my feet,” he said.
Cabrera relapsed and experienced another heart failure back in September, he said, adding that he has been sober ever since – and considers the Gathering Inn family.
“With a secure place to sleep at night. Clothing, shower, they all provide that,” he said. “We got very active case managers that they often let us know what we have, you know, all the benefits that we get.”
He said he has a job at the mall and is working toward independence and getting his own place.
Sam Holmes is executive director of the Homeless Resource Council of the Sierras, a collaborative group of agencies and non-profit organizations from Placer and Nevada counties. He said the annual Point in Time Count is important.
“The Point in Time Count is a snapshot of our community’s access to both shelter and unshelter for those who are unhoused. What we're doing is going out in the street and talking to people who are unhoused. We’re also working with all of our shelter providers to understand who spent the night on (January) 25 in their shelter,” he said. “Alongside all of this, we're also taking a look at the bigger picture. So looking at transitional housing as well as permanent supportive housing and understanding, really, just the supply and demand of all of these housing options that are available for those individuals who are experiencing - and at risk of - homelessness in our community.”
Just this week, Placer County Supervisors voted to spend nearly $1.1 million to launch and operate what they’re calling a mobile, temporary, low-barrier shelter. It’s considered “low-barrier” because drug testing will not be required, although alcohol, drugs and weapons will not be allowed.
The shelter will be located in Auburn, alongside a county building on F Avenue. It’s scheduled to open in mid-February and will offer some 50 tents with cots, plus bathrooms, showers—and 24/7 on-site supervision and basic case management services.
The newly approved funding runs through the end of June, with one supervisor calling it a “pilot project.”
It’s worth noting—this shelter is the result of a lawsuit settlement agreement. Sacramento-based civil rights attorney Mark Merin filed a class claim on behalf of several unhoused people, saying they lost property during an encampment clearing on county property last spring. However, Placer County says the added services – partnering with Sacramento non-profit First Step Communities to operate the shelter - are above-and-beyond, as those weren't a requirement of the lawsuit settlement.
Anyone interested in donating to the Gathering Inn can do so HERE.