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Businesses ‘up in arms’ over homeless shelter proposal

Zoning plan drums up discussion in Auburn
By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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Leslie Brewer has been monitoring how jurisdictions have responded to the state law requiring permanent homeless shelters to be allowed by right in at least one area of every city since it took effect in 2007.

What’s happening in Auburn right now as the city works to come into compliance with that law is an example of how Senate Bill 2 has been a step in the right direction for the homeless community, said Brewer, chairperson for the Placer Consortium on Homelessness.

“It’s a start,” she said of the state law. “If you can get a community who has been very resistant to even thinking about a homeless shelter and the state has mandated them to identify a shelter-by-right location, that’s a start.”

Brewer contacted the City of Auburn in January to ask what area it had specified for such a shelter, and she said she was surprised to find out it had yet to be addressed.

Now, Auburn has the ball rolling with a proposal headed for a public hearing before City Council in April, and discussion in the community has heated up about the plan that would designate essentially two industrial areas within the city for permanent homeless shelters.

Both areas are located near railroad tracks, with one section surrounding the Lincoln Way and Borland Avenue corridor near Downtown and the other off Sacramento Street near Railhead Park.

The Downtown Auburn business community had been “up in arms” about it after the Planning Commission approved the proposal March 5, and city hall staff has been busy answering questions and addressing some popular misconceptions about the plan as well.

One such misconception is that the proposal had been sparked by an application to set up a homeless shelter, Community Development Director Will Wong said.

Instead, the reason for tackling the issue now is because the city has to update its housing code every five years, and if it did not meet the SB 2 requirements, then it would not get approved by the state this year.

If there had been a request to set up a permanent shelter in the city, it would have been addressed sooner, Wong said.

The proposed change to the zoning ordinance is packaged with three other amendments the city had outlined for future implementation when it last updated its housing element in 2008.

Jim Bril, president of the Downtown Business Association, said business leaders had been “up in arms” about the proposal. It could open the door for a shelter just a few blocks from his restaurant, the Monkey Cat, 805 Lincoln Way.

“Obviously,” the business district is opposed to it, Bril said.

“It would deteriorate our town to have a homeless shelter in a downtown business district,” he said. “We’re trying to attract customers down this way, and not all homeless people are derelict but a portion of them are.”

The January 2011 census found 631 people homeless in Placer County, and a count taken two years ago indicated 278 of them had been living unsheltered.

Brewer said she sees a “pretty great need” for a permanent shelter in Auburn.

The Gathering Inn provides a temporary shelter, but most of the churches that participate are in Rocklin and Roseville, forcing Auburn’s homeless to take a bus – or two – to get there, she said.

It’s important that the zoning for homeless shelters receives community support, Brewer said.

“For something to be successful, you have to have a relationship with the neighborhood which you are going to,” she said. “You don’t want to open a shelter or start some type of business if you don’t have the support from your local community.”

Charles Beckett owns a business within the industrial district near Downtown Auburn that is proposed for permanent homeless shelters, and he’s against the current zoning plan. Beckett has collected about 50 signatures on a petition to have the proposal scrapped and reworked.

“We got an impressive response from the city and we appreciated that response. That made us feel more at ease,” said Beckett, who opened auto repair shop The Golden Wrench in June 2012 on Team Track Road. “But, again, I hope that the language doesn’t allow something we don’t want to have happen in the area. If we are going to do something about the homeless situation in Auburn we are going to have to do something and do it good.”

He recommended annexing some additional lands and working with nonprofit organizations to bring services right to a shelter in the future.

“Putting a homeless situation right next to the railroad tracks is not good,” Beckett said. “I’ve said it several times now, alcohol, drugs and machinery do not mix and these railroad guys, they run them over all the time.”

Wong has had discussions with a Union Pacific Railroad representative, and said although they also expressed concern about the proposed areas, railroads “crisscross” throughout all of the city’s zones. So, regardless which zone is designated for homeless shelters, tracks could be nearby, he said.

Beckett’s dialog with the city actually resulted in a change of the wording of the proposed amendment, specifying that the shelters would be at a building rather than a “premises,” after questions about whether a so-called “tent city” could pop up in the designated areas.

Shelters had been intended to be housed in buildings all along, Wong said.

Officially called “emergency shelters,” the permanent homeless shelters would have a capacity of no more than 30 occupants, and could not be located within 500 feet of the city’s single-family residential zone, parks, schools or libraries.

Those proposed buffer zones are under review by the city attorney, and they “may not be doable because they would eliminate too many areas,” Wong said.

 

Jon Schultz can be reached at jons@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_AJNews