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Willow Island homeless caught in Yuba City crossfire

Responsibility for helping a soon-to-be displaced homeless community on Willow Island in Yuba City is as clear as the mud on the banks of the nearby Feather River.

The group tasked with finding a solution to the impending displacement — set to occur over the next couple of months — disbanded last week after only two meetings.

A smaller, informal group believes the burden lies with the city. That group, a subset of the recently dissolved Sutter-Yuba Homeless Consortium subcommittee, hopes to get the issue on the June 5 City Council meeting.

But City Manager Steve Jepsen says the city can do little to solve the problem.

"We're not in the social services business," he said, in response to suggestions that the city should find a place to house the group.

"I'm not interested in having a shelter that's just a flop house," Jepsen said.

He would like instead, he said, "a place that provides rehabilitation that brings them back into a productive role where they have jobs — and that requires a lot of resources."

Jepsen has worked as a volunteer with the Regional Emergency Shelter Team — REST — which came about through the Homeless Consortium in recent years.

He also is a vocal advocate of programs developed by Father Joe Carroll, whose work to help the homeless populations of Southern California has attracted nationwide attention.

Jepsen estimates the population on the riverbank site — an 80-acre area where a grant-funded park is scheduled to undergo construction beginning in July — to be 50 people and about 25 dogs and cats.

According to David Westover, who chaired the Homeless Consortium subcommittee, the number of people is closer to 100.

And that isn't the only subject on which the city and local homeless advocates disagree.

Responsibility for finding an altern tive place for those at Willow Island to live lies with Yuba City, according to Westover and others hoping to appeal to the council for help.

"It's the city that's displacing those people and it is their obligation, morally and legally, to provide shelter for those people," said Jim Leonard, whose informal band of volunteers serves food to the area's homeless and poor three days a week at the base of the 10th Street Bridge.

With plans to build the park now several years in the making, Leonard said, city officials have no excuse for turning their backs on the entrenched homeless population there.

"I don't understand, from a Christian point of view, how the city can have those priorities."

Jepsen said he believes Leonard is, in part, responsible for attracting the homeless to the Yuba City river bottom.

"Jim Leonard has done a great job in providing services in the form of meals, and that's a good thing in a lot of respects," he said. "But in some ways, it perpetuates the population that's on the island."

Leonard said he has heard the charge before.

"They're not there because of Jim's free lunch," he said. "They (city officials) have been pushing the homeless down there into the river bottoms for decades."

Jepsen said he believes the population Leonard and others are seeking to find help for is more complicated than they realize.

"The core group doesn't avail itself to alternative relocation," he said.

A tent city, one of the primary ideas floated by the subcommittee, would not, therefore, be a viable solution, Jepsen said.

"They like to be secluded and out of sight. Some are difficult to deal with and some have abuse problems," he said.

Leonard said he is well aware of the diversity of the homeless population. The city's focus, he said, should be on helping those who are willing to be subjected to background checks and who qualify for services such as those provided by REST.

One way or another, eviction notices are scheduled to be distributed to the homeless of Willow Island starting next month, Westover said.

"We need to provide the people there with some other options," he said. "And we haven't been able to get any answers out of the city."

CONTACT Nancy Pasternack at npasternack@appealdemocrat.com or 749-4781. Find her on Facebook at /ADnpasternack or on Twitter at @ADnpasternack.


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