Deputy Blake Braafladt of EDSO's Homeless Outreach Team checks to see if anyone's home at a campsite in Cameron Park. Cameron Park Life photo by Joe McNeilly

Cameron Park Life

New EDSO unit addresses homelessness

By From page A1 | August 01, 2017

Spacious homes nestled on wooded hillsides against the scenic backdrop of the Sierra Nevada, a neighborhood where the houses include garages for personal aircraft — Cameron Park is a picturesque community.

But on the fringes, carefully out of sight, some in Cameron Park struggle with poverty and homelessness.

The El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office is tackling the problem of homelessness in Cameron Park and throughout the county with a dedicated unit called Homeless Outreach Team. HOT was formed in April and represents a new approach to the decades-old problem. Sgt. Mike Cook, along with deputies Chris Macres and Blake Braafladt, comprise the HOT team, which was created as part of a countywide effort to coordinate non-profit service providers, county agencies and law enforcement to better address homelessness in El Dorado County.

A January 2017 survey put El Dorado County’s homeless population at 598. While that may seem like a small number, the transient population puts a strain on services such as fire, ambulance, law enforcement and the emergency room, according to sheriff’s officials.

On a scorching hot July morning Cameron Park Life rode along with deputies Braafladt and Macres as they made their rounds in an out-of-the-way corner of Cameron Park where a loose collection of campsites lies hidden among the trees. The deputies weren’t looking to make arrests, but rather seeking opportunities to get people off the streets and into more stable situations.

“We can’t arrest our way out of the homeless issue,” said Macres, who’s been with EDSO for five years.

One of the sites visited was inhabited by James, 24, and his girlfriend Amy, 21. James has been homeless for five years but for Amy it’s been less than a year — since she turned 21 and lost access to a program for former foster kids.

En route, Braafladt explained the importance of reaching younger people before they develop long-term issues with drugs and mental health. Homelessness quickly becomes a self-perpetuating condition, but people in their 20s have more energy and more willingness to engage with the deputies and follow through with services, he said.

Upon arrival to the site James clambered sleepily out of his tent. Last week James had expressed an interest in joining the California Conservation Corps, so Macres and Braafladt were hoping to keep up the momentum in that direction. The deputies were encouraging and reassuring as they inquired about Amy and the Conservation Corps.

James informed the deputies that Amy wasn’t there; she’d taken the bus to Job One, an employment resource center in Placerville. Previously, the deputies assisted her in getting set up with Medi-Cal and EBT, but she took this new step entirely on her own. “Amy wasn’t exploring job opportunities when we met her,” Braafladt mentioned later.

At the campsite, conversation circled back to James’ interest in the CCC. The deputies offered to help with submitting an application and getting James to an interview. “Let’s do it,” James replied. He hopped into the car and Braafladt fired up his laptop.

This is typical of how the HOT operates — responding on the fly to each individual situation, planting seeds of encouragement and looking for opportunities to seize the moment.

By being involved in the process the team paves the way for the homeless to apply for and receive services. The patchwork of services aimed at finding jobs and housing for transients is daunting to navigate and the deputies said many give up in frustration. Issues with transportation, hygiene, health, identity documents, phone and internet access and more can conspire to undermine a person’s efforts to get back on their feet.

While some outright refuse the deputies’ offers of assistance or inherently mistrust law enforcement, others like James and Amy have responded by taking positive steps toward a brighter future. “For four years I’ve been saying I don’t want to be out here anymore,” James said. “For those of us who want or need the help, (HOT) was a really good idea.”

“Text me if you need a ride,” Braafladt told James after submitting his CCC application. Without transportation or a place to take a shower, it would be easy for James to blow off an interview and go on living in his tent. Now that they have him invested in a goal, the deputies said they will help James follow through so he doesn’t fall through the cracks.

To be accepted to the CCC, James will have to pass a drug test. He told the deputies he wasn’t currently using; however, opiate and methamphetamine use is prevalent in transient communities. With hope for a better future on the horizon, James appeared determined to stay clean and make the most of the opportunity before him.

“Let your mom know what you’re doing,” Macres suggested.

Reconnecting people with family provides much-needed stability and is another priority for HOT. A young man named Juan who had been camping in Cameron Park recently reunited with his father and found a job in Placerville. One individual at a time, HOT is reaching out and getting assistance to those who are ready to change their lives.

When the deputies began outreach in mid-May, there were 10 to 12 people scattered around the area visited, living in tents. Two months later that number has fallen to four. If things work out with James and Amy, they’ll be down to two. Though this is just one site among many in the county, the results are immediate and encouraging, the deputies noted.

In addition to getting people into more stable living situations, HOT has an impact on fire safety. Last year the county’s fire departments responded to more than 100 calls to fires at homeless camps. Since HOT began raising awareness among the homeless about fire safety, that number has dropped to zero.

Back in the car, Braafladt’s phone dinged an alert — a text message from James asking if he could bring garbage bags next time he comes out, an apparent nod to the deputies’ persistence that has instilled James with an eagerness for self-improvement, to get his campsite picked up and start putting his life back in order.

“People go, ‘You know what, I can do it.’ They start reaching out on their own,” said Braafladt. “Before you know it, they’re on their way.”

This article draws upon information and statistics from Dawn Hodson’s three-part series on homelessness published in the Mountain Democrat. Read it in its entirety on mtdemocrat.com.

Joe McNeilly

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