It is evident now that California’s homeless solutions and the billion$ in funding are just one giant hustle – and maybe even a house of cards.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Encampment Resolution Fund grant program, a $700 million two-year program to close down homeless encampments and get people into housing and shelter is handing out another $240 million, the Globe recently reported.
But at what real cost, and does any of this really work at permanently getting homeless off of the streets?
What is going on in beautiful South Lake Tahoe is a case in point. The California Department of Justice is suing the Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless for breach of contract and mismanaging funds – $8.5 million.
Director of the Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless, Cheyenne Purrington, jumped ship in September, and moved to Oregon, Colleen Hearn with Concerned Citizens of Cameron Park, and Tamara Wallace, former South Lake Tahoe Mayor told the Globe. Wallace is still a council member on the South Lake Tahoe City Council.
And as with nearly all of the homeless funds distributed in the state, people want to know where the money has gone given that the state only has more homeless after spending billions of taxpayer dollars.Hearn said that her community group, Concerned Citizens of Cameron Park, has consistently opposed Project Homekey and Project Roomkey expanding in El Dorado County, preferring continuing their own local charity and help to those who need it.
Project Roomkey is a hotel service for homeless vagrants, costs more than $250 per night in many California cities. Even Motel 6 in San Francisco advertises $100 per night rooms.
“We knew it was failing in South Lake Tahoe and that their Executive Director for Tahoe Homeless Coalition, Cheyenne Purrington was failing the community,” Hearn said. “Luckily our efforts succeeded in blocking the expansion. Two County Supervisors – Supervisor Hidahl and Supervisor Thomas – were staunch advocates for Homekey but are silent now. However, El Dorado County is continuing to use the the Tahoe Coalition for ALL coordinated entries for the homeless in spite of warnings and outcry from the public and the threatened lawsuit.”
Hearn said the County Board just voted to accept the latest “blackmail” from the Governor that he would cease funding for the proposed homeless navigation center if they did not follow the “Homeless Housing, Assistance, and Prevention Program,” a $2 billion program funded over the next two years for local governments to combat homelessness. The guidelines require prioritizing very low income housing under the “housing first” directive.
“We are barreling down the road for a homeless navigation center with no infrastructure in place – no credible coordinated entry and no guarantee of funding,” Hearn said. “The Board refuses to listen to the experts on homelessness in our county who state we don’t have a crisis.”
Hearn says her community of Cameron Park has been targeted for Project Roomkey hotels for homeless. But, community members noticed some of the “homeless” in the shelters were covered with prison tattoos, and coincidentally elderly people were getting robbed in the nearby Safeway parking lot. She said it was obvious the state was releasing felons into the hotels. Her local group worked with the El Dorado County Sheriff’s department which placed a substation nearby to curtail the crime.
Hearn said these hotel and low-income housing plans were being done with no mitigation plan in place for the safety and security of the residents.
The former Mayor of South Lake Tahoe Tamara Wallace said she was Mayor in 2021 when the homeless funds were made available. But the hitch was that the Tahoe Homeless Coalition needed a partnering agency to apply for the grant funds – and the agency needed to agree to a 55 year deed. “South Lake Tahoe said ‘no’ – the grant came only with two years of funding and we were’t going to put our taxpayers on the hook for 53 additional years,” Wallace said.
So the Tahoe Homeless Coalition went to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA is funded by the state), which agreed. The next thing they knew “Governor Newsom was in Tahoe doing a press event at the Bears Den Project Homekey property, announcing ‘We’re giving South Lake Tahoe $10 million to end homelessness,'” Wallace said. However, right after the event, Wallace said the TRPA realized they would be responsible for the 55 year deed restrictions with only two years of funding, and backed out.
“But no one wanted Gov. Newsom to lose face, so the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) went back to South Lake Tahoe, and blackmailed us,” Wallace said. “They said we haven’t been meeting our regional housing needs assessment numbers.” Since 1969, California has required that all local governments (cities and counties) adequately plan to meet the housing needs of everyone in the community. Wallace said that was ironic, and told them that was because of the TRPA, which controls housing growth (or lack thereof). “We told them ‘sue us.'”
Instead the Housing and Community Development went back to the TRPA with a sweetheart deal – they could keep the Project Homekey grant without the usual 55 year deed agreement. Wallace said it is the only sweetheart deal of its kind in the state, and only because the governor got ahead of himself, and no one wanted him to lose face.
With the grant funds, the Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless, led by Executive Director Cheyenne Purrington, purchased three South Lake Tahoe motels -Bear’s Den, Red Lodge and El Nido Motel – to convert into long-term housing through the Project Homekey grant.
Mayor Wallace said she has been working a long time with the homeless and homeless youth through her church in South Lake Tahoe, and knows what really works and helps long term. She said Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless Executive Director Cheyenne Purrington displayed signs of trouble from the moment she was hired. “The homeless in our town were better served before the three Project Homekey properties,” Wallace said. “It was a more cohesive effort.”
She said the Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless “way overpaid for the properties.” The grant requirement was the purchase of a property, the rehabilitation of it, and two years of operating cash, Wallace explained. “One property was not even used for 16 months of the two year commitment, and 6 months in they couldn’t pay the bills for the required SRO inspection fees.”
Wallace said the third property needed the most rehabilitation, but had a restaurant on the property, and they were collecting rent from it. There was also a two bedroom apartment on the property which could have housed a homeless family, but the Executive Director Cheyenne Purrington was living in it. Wallace said while it might not have been illegal, it was morally and ethically wrong.
Two of the properties were occupied when they were purchased. One was less expensive housing for Tahoe workers in the lower-paid service industries. The other was owned by Heavenly Ski Resort and used as affordable housing for seasonal workers. They were all kicked out ahead of the renovations and the units were eventually given to homeless. Wallace said because the rents are so high in South Lake Tahoe, most of the workers had to move down from the hill to seek employment and housing elsewhere.
Wallace also said that part of the grant requirement is for the Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless to keep a warm room opened and available for the homeless to use to take a shower, do some laundry and use the phones. “The warm room was pristine,” Wallace said, “because they don’t allow anyone to use it.”
The very purpose of the homeless grants was to serve the homeless, and the Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless director wouldn’t allow homeless to use the facility.
Wallace said she was in a police officers’ office one day at the South Lake Tahoe police station when he got a call from the homeless coalition claiming a homeless man trying to seek services in the warm room was “trespassing.” When the officer asked what the problem was, the reply was “He’s breathing.” Wallace said they claimed he didn’t have an appointment (he said he did), and added, “We don’t want him here. He’s breathing.”
Notably, Wallace said an appointment to use the warm room had to be made over the phone, which meant most likely from the library across town. The homeless weren’t allowed to show up without an appointment.
It became apparent they just wanted the grant money but not the homeless which came attached to it.
Now Wallace says the money is gone, there isn’t much to show for it, and the two years is up in a few weeks.
“Mayor Wallace tried to ring the bell on Homekey in her community and the Tahoe Coalition, but our Board of Supervisors failed to listen,” Colleen Hearn said.
Below is the DOJ letter regarding their lawsuit, as well as the response. The DOJ letter starts on page 5.GBJ Response to AG Letter dated 11 16 22
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