Understanding Homelessness in Nevada County: Insights from UCSF California Statewide Study (Opinion)

Jazmin Breaux, Columnist

The Morales family of Truckee (*names in this story have been changed to protect privacy) became homeless in 2021 due to unemployment. Tom and Cindy worked in the service industry and could not recover from the loss of income. They moved out of their rental home with their three children. The family stayed between their car, hotels, and occasionally with friends for three years before securing a place to call home again. 

Jim, A 65-year-old US military veteran, lived in Grass Valley on a fixed income comprised of Supplemental Security Income and Veterans Affairs benefits. Jim counted himself as lucky as he had an affordable unit and a good relationship with his landlord. He was paying $700 a month, or 50 percent of his total income, to rent the place. When his landlord told him he was selling the home, Jim had just 60 days to find a new place that he could afford. He entered homelessness and spent nearly six months living at a shelter before finding a short-term solution in a group home. Jim still hopes to find his own housing but will need a Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing voucher to support rental costs or to get lucky and find a subsidized unit. The waitlists are long and most market rate housing won’t qualify for a voucher when he gets one, so for Jim an exit from homelessness will require getting lucky on the waitlist or finding a landlord willing to charge what he pays. 

There are many stories like these … our friends, relatives, and neighbors, living in this community who find themselves in a bad situation that turns to homelessness. The recent University of California, San Francisco Statewide Study of People Experiencing Homelessness has shed light on the intricate relationship between housing costs, income limitations and the pervasive issue of homelessness. The study unequivocally demonstrates that the escalating cost of housing in our communities is a significant factor driving homelessness. The limitation of affordable housing is further compounded by health issues, both physical and mental, and limited support networks. When housing needs are unmet, a person’s vulnerability to homelessness increases exponentially. Once someone enters homelessness, the stress of survival continues to impact their health and wellness, thus creating greater barriers to end their homelessness. 

To address homelessness in our communities, we need to understand these nuances and bring humanness into understanding the issue. After better understanding the root issues we can move to build effective programs and policies that address the issues of homelessness.

As rents and property prices continue to outpace income growth, a growing number of individuals and families are finding it increasingly difficult to afford stable housing. Findings from the 2021 Nevada County Housing Report revealed renters need to earn $23.67 per hour to afford the average asking rent in Nevada County. This equates to 1.7 times the state minimum wage. While this statistic was relevant in 2021, it does not reflect the rates of inflation over the past two years since this study was completed. Today, a 2-bedroom apartment in Truckee costs $2,700 month and the average rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in Nevada City is $2,098 per month. 

The study underscores the impact of job loss and unemployment as a precipitating factor in homelessness. Many individuals find themselves in homelessness due to unexpected job loss, lack of employment opportunities, or sudden economic downturns. Locally, the unemployment rate in Nevada County in April 2020 was 15.4 percent. Since then, our employment rates have continued to decrease to 5.9 percent in April 2021. While the number of unemployed residents has decreased since the height of the pandemic, the temporarily high unemployment rates continue to have a substantial impact on our community. Data from the UCSF study found that once people become homeless, they have the tendency to stay in the community they know. Local data from Nevada County highlights the same themes. Four-hundred and ninety-two individuals were counted during the 2023 Nevada County Pointin-Time Count. This annual Homeless Point-in-Time count is a snapshot of homelessness on one night in Nevada County. Through this count, participants are asked a series of questions about their current conditions, including why they stay here once they are homeless. Fifty-six percent of individuals who answered these questions reported living in this county for five or more years while only 22 percent reported they had been in the county for less than 90 days. Additionally, 63 percent of respondents said they stay in Nevada County because they are originally from here and want to be close to family and friends. 

In addition to the housing issues cited above, it is important to highlight the striking racial and social disparities within the homeless population. People from marginalized communities, including Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), are disproportionately affected by homelessness. Systemic inequalities, discriminatory practices, and historical disadvantages contribute to these disparities. Finally, limited access to supportive services creates additional challenges to addressing and preventing homelessness. Individuals at-risk of homelessness often confront a range of complex issues, such as mental health problems, substance abuse disorders, and limited healthcare access. These complex issues are intensified with the stress and experiences of homelessness. Without adequate support systems in place, breaking this cycle of homelessness becomes incredibly challenging, perpetuating the problem further. 

While speaking with Ryan Gruver, Nevada County Health and Human Services director, about the parallels between this statewide study and the trends of homelessness seen locally in Nevada County, he stated: “The study is impressive in its scope and depth. The findings at a statewide level play out in microcosm in Nevada County. Of the approximately 500 individuals experiencing homelessness locally, there are 500 unique stories. What they all have in common is fundamentally a gap between what housing costs, and what they can afford and maintain. Other factors, such as abuse, mental illness, substance use, and involvement in the legal system can both increase the likeliness of homelessness, as well as be exacerbated by the condition of homelessness. While Nevada County and our partners have made significant strides in recent years, the study underscores the continued need for more and more affordable housing if we truly hope to end the homelessness crisis.”

Strategic policy reforms that include housing initiatives, rent affordability measures, and income support programs remain a key component of ending homelessness. Securing sufficient funding for these programs and garnering political will remain a persistent challenge that needs to be addressed to make meaningful progress. The root cause of homelessness is a lack of adequate housing and a lack of resources. Given our local housing markets, the most vulnerable people are at the highest risk of homelessness. Adequate housing solutions pared with comprehensive support systems, including case management, medical services, and mental health treatment, represent the key to ending homelessness. To be effective, these supports must include mental health services, substance abuse treatment, employment assistance, and affordable healthcare. Ensuring these services are accessible to those experiencing homelessness and those who have recently ended their homelessness remains a significant challenge that requires investment and systemic changes. 

More information on this study can be found at:

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