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California campground for the homeless is forced to shut down

PLACERVILLE, Calif. — At Hangtown Haven, Wednesdays were family night, and on movie night 30 to 40 residents watched DVDs on a mammoth outdoor TV.

Residents nursed one another through drug and alcohol detoxification and helped heart and stroke patients recover in their tents. The mayor championed the endeavor, churches embraced it and one police chief said it brought down crime.

But on Friday, what is believed to be California's only authorized, self-governing campground for homeless people shut down.

Hangtown Haven, the dream of a retired aerospace engineer from Orange County, opened in July 2012 on private land under a permit from the Gold Country town of Placerville, population 10,000. It served dozens of homeless people, with its own community council, a wheelchair-friendly portable toilet and a library.

"This was the most functional family I ever had by far," said Becky Nylander, a member of the camp's community council.

But town residents complained that the project had begun to attract homeless outsiders to town.

"We have a very caring, compassionate community, and word gets out," said Placerville Mayor Wendy Thomas.

A number of cities across the nation opened encampments for homeless people around the time of the Great Recession, though many were later closed. Such camps continue to operate in cities including Eugene, Ore., Portland and Seattle. Nevada City, Calif., started licensing homeless people to camp last year.

What some see as an innovative solution to an intractable problem strikes others as a blow to human dignity.

"People shouldn't have to live in tents," said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington, D.C. "We can do better."

But El Dorado County lacks shelter for its estimated 170 to 350 homeless people. The county has no year-round adult homeless shelter and only scattered transitional housing.

The local timber mill closed in 2009, and Gold Rush-inspired tourism, the town's lifeblood, remains depressed.

Placerville was named "Old Hangtown" because of its taste for frontier justice, and a dummy — lately dressed head-to-toe in pink to mark breast cancer awareness month — hangs from a noose in the middle of downtown.

Hangtown Haven's "godfather," as residents jokingly call him, is Art Edwards, the retired aerospace worker who remembers his mother feeding hobos during the Depression.

"She told me never to turn my back on those in need," Edwards said.

Edwards set up the camp's nonprofit board and brought an engineer's eye to its design.

The campsite is in a woodsy hollow on the outskirts of town. On a tour last month, Edwards pointed out plywood and pallets under the tents to keep them dry. Old billboards were strung as tarps to shield the tents when the snows came, as they did several times last year, he said.

Each tent came with an approved heater and fire extinguishers hung every few feet along the fence. Water from the 400-foot well went through a filtration system, and the landowner let the camp tap his power pole to charge cellphones and turn on appliances.

"The fire marshal was very happy," Edwards said.

The residents set their own rules: no alcohol, drugs or panhandling, and no sex offenders. Their stories, of trauma, bad choices and bad luck were sometimes harrowing.

Nylander, 40, dropped out of paralegal school to care for her mother. Police mistakenly stopped Nylander from rushing her mother to the hospital in respiratory distress, and she never recovered. After her death, Nylander had a breakdown.

"I arrived here in a ball clutching Dorie," Nylander said, referring to one of two service dogs in the camp. "I was a real mess. Then I got my mental health taken care of and started to grow."

Troy Spear, 52, had spent 14 1/2 years in prison. He suffered a stroke in the camp and was hospitalized at Placerville's Marshall Medical Center.

The hospital released him with prescriptions for a cane and baby aspirin, Nylander said. Hangtown Haven residents helped him to and from his tent, picked up his medicine and made sure he ate, she said.

Marshall Medical Center, in a written statement, said an official had reviewed Spear's chart and was satisfied he received adequate follow-up care, including support in his "home environment."

El Dorado County has no in-patient detoxification center, so Hangtown Haven residents helped substance abusers kick drugs and alcohol in their tents, Nylander said.

Roy Comer, 59, a former Humboldt County painting contractor, had been hospitalized for open-heart surgery. He, too, recovered in the camp.

"I never would have made it without it," Comer said.

With Hangtown Haven's city permit set to expire, Thomas, the mayor, tried unsuccessfully to persuade the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors to let the camp use a county-owned parcel off the freeway.

"This is not a dumping ground or a place for freeloaders," Thomas testified during an impassioned 2 1/2 -hour board hearing on the proposal in September. "These are extraordinary people working through extraordinary circumstances."

Although Hangtown Haven organizers promised to shield the camp from view, neighbors said they didn't want a shantytown at the town's portal, and the proposal died.

"I'm as keen on helping people as anyone, but I have to look at this from a business point of view," said Supervisor Ron Mikulaco.

Residents cleared the camp Friday, putting picnic benches, barbecues and tents into storage. Many planned to sleep at local churches' winter night shelters, and the city is opening a day shelter in a downtown storefront. Some said they would take to the hills again.

Nylander said organizers were not giving up and hoped to reopen on a new site by spring.

"We had a good run," she said Friday. "They think if we go away, all the homeless will go away.

"We absolutely were part of the solution, not the problem."

gale.holland@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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