Homeless numbers in South Lake Tahoe largely a mystery | NevadaAppeal.com

Homeless numbers in South Lake Tahoe largely a mystery

Dan Thrift/Appeal News Service Joanne Swafford, center, has been homeless at South Shore since December. Alexis Asher, left, and Wendy Foss - both formerly homeless - are trying to help her get off the street.

Other than vouchers for a bus trip out of town, a meal or few nights at a motel, South Shore doesn’t have much to offer homeless people who are not mentally ill.

There is no homeless shelter in El Dorado County and the closest shelter on the Nevada side of the Lake Tahoe Basin is in Carson City.

Douglas County just received a $300,000 federal grant to fund transitional housing for the homeless. It plans to begin working to gauge the size of its homeless population at the end of the month, said Ellen Van Cleave, who works at the Douglas County Department of Human Services.

El Dorado County has no numbers to point to regarding its homeless but Community Services Director John Litwinovich said the problem exists.

“We know there are a significant number,” he said. “We certainly encounter those situations on a regular basis.”

Joanne Swafford is in one of “those situations.” Swafford, who has lived at South Shore for 28 years, and at one point ran a vacation rental cleaning business, found herself without a home last fall. Since then she’s been barely scraping by, spending most of her nights in the old BMW she owns.

The breakup of an abusive marriage followed by a car wreck left Swafford, 49, who also has a dog and a cat, destitute. She got sick, her weight dropped to about 90 pounds and she ended up having to sell furniture and clothes to buy gas for her car.

During the process of selling the furniture, Swafford met two women, Alexis Asher and Wendy Foss, who both have been homeless at one point themselves. The three became friends in April and began trying to help each other.

Asher, 50, rents a room but does not have enough space to accommodate Swafford for more than a couple days. Foss, also 50, can’t put up Swafford due to rental rules of her apartment.

Asher has been relentless in her pursuit of assistance for Swafford, successfully soliciting a variety of donations from the community.

“Wendy, Joanne and I also talked about leaving. I had no doubts at all Tahoe would never be my home. I longed to situate myself in a community that involved itself in the welfare of all its inhabitants,” wrote Asher, in a book she is working on called “Homeless in Tahoe.”

A county housing official said one reason El Dorado County does not have a shelter for the homeless is because the county has been without a general plan.

Having a valid general plan would open up grant opportunities that could possibly fund the construction of a shelter, said Joyce Aldrich, director of the El Dorado County Housing, Community and Economic Block Grant Program.

Aldrich says she’s been told there is enough homeless in the county to warrant a shelter. The first step toward building one would involve a study to assess the severity of the problem. That information could be used to apply for state or federal grants, Aldrich said.

The South Lake Tahoe Women’s Center does offer help for abused women. Swafford visited the center in May but didn’t receive help because she refused to be separated from her pets – no animals are allowed in the shelter – but, more importantly, because the center’s shelter was full.

Swafford also looked for help at the Tahoe Opportunity Project, an El Dorado County Department of Mental Health program. All homeless are welcome every Wednesday morning to talk, drink coffee, and eat. But the program exists to help the mentally ill.

“Sometimes they’ll leave with a bag of groceries or if we have any money for housing and outreach we’ll help someone out,” said Claudette de Carbonel, program coordinator. “We don’t have the funds just to put anyone who is not in the program up.”

If you are homeless with some type of diagnosed mental illness, the program provides temporary housing, treatment and work to help you become independent, de Carbonel said.

“At times, some people need some help,” Foss said. “We need resources for our own people. When you don’t have any money you’re just a throwaway person.

“We’re not a bunch of losers. We just happen to be down and out for a period of time. We don’t want a pity party.”

Homeless find refuge in Tahoe’s forest

By Gregory Crofton

Nevada Appeal News Service

Tahoe’s homeless often spend their summer in beds of high meadow grass or in a comfy spot at the base of a tree.

A temperate climate and an abundance of hard-to-get-to meadows and backcountry provide beautiful crash pads for people with no place to stay. But where people are, there can be fire.

Law enforcement agencies and the U.S. Forest Service sweep the forest looking for illegal campers each year. The last sweep occurred July 7. Officers arrested one camper in California and forced another to pack up and leave.

“Fire is the main reason,” said Sgt. Tom Mezzetta, of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department. “Any type of campfire set up in the woods, under the current drought conditions especially, is a real concern.”

Popular places to illegally camp include forest areas behind the casinos at Stateline, in South Lake Tahoe off at the end of Chonokis Road and the meadow behind Motel 6 next to the Upper Truckee River.

On the recent sweep, law enforcement searched on foot but sometimes they search on horseback.

“We try to reduce illegal camping because of the campfire danger,” said Sgt. Alex Schumacher, of the South Lake Tahoe Police Department. “But also because the people living up there tend to be more criminally oriented.”

Longtime Tahoe resident Charles Bell lives at the end of Chonokis Road. He said he does worry about illegal campers catching the forest on fire.

“I don’t know if they are smart about fire,” Bell, 84, said. “I suppose in the summer it’s a cheaper way to live for sure. I don’t blame a guy for sleeping on the ground, that’s fine. It’s fire that I’m afraid of. What’s my defense?”


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